The UK government's consultation on desegregated toilets is a direct attack on trans rights, says the United Voices of the World – Section of Architectural Workers union.
The government's current consultation on toilets, entitled Toilet provision for men and women: call for evidence, places the provision of "gender-neutral" desegregated facilities and the safety of trans and gender non-conforming people who rely on them, under threat.
This consultation is dog-whistle politics, motivated not by improving access to public toilets, but in suppressing the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people. From the government's pitiful reform of the Gender Recognition Act in 2020, to the recent high court ruling to restrict children under 16 from accessing "puberty-blocking" drugs, it is yet another attack in the on-going culture war that seeks to dehumanise and remove trans people from public life.
The consultation, which people can respond to until this Friday 26 February, seeks to change guidance, and even insert new terms into the building regulations that would enforce a clear steer towards facilities segregated by binary "sex" categories.
It further seeks to reconsider "the ratio of female toilet spaces needed, versus the number for men" and pushes for the use of "gender-specific language" in washroom signage to avoid so-called "public confusion".
Desegregated toilets are known to offer numerous benefits
The era of architects reshaping cities in the hopes of achieving an egalitarian utopia is long gone, if indeed it ever existed, but designers still have the power to prioritise the needs of often-overlooked people. Architects need to use their voices and stand in vocal opposition to the government's segregated toilet proposals.
Desegregated toilets are known to offer numerous benefits – they introduce parity into waiting times for all genders, make toilet trips easier for carers or those accompanying dependents, are cheaper, and use space more efficiently. They have proven particularly successful in schools where they can help to reduce bullying.
In 2017 UK LGBT rights charity Stonewall found that 48 per cent of trans people don't feel comfortable using public toilets due to fear of discrimination or harassment. A huge benefit of desegregated toilets is that they can greatly reduce the risks of verbal harassment, intimidation and physical assault transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people often face in "single-sex" facilities.
The government consultation, says that it's aim is to "ensure that everyone is fairly served", but it's framing and baseless claims that "male-only/female-only spaces" are being "replaced with gender-neutral toilets" expose its disingenuous foundations.
The government claims that desegregated facilities place women at a "significant disadvantage" and make them "feel less comfortable" leave little question as to who its authors do and do not consider "women". The experiences of women who are trans or gender non conforming, who often face hostility, scrutiny and physical aggression in segregated public toilets, are completely disregarded.
Trans men, non-binary and intersex people who experience menstruation, pregnancy or menopause are similarly ignored in the government's proposals, as the consultation frames these "sanitary needs" as phenomena specific to women only.
The consultation also fails to consider the experiences of those who are discriminated against because they are incorrectly perceived to be trans- including butch/lesbian women; gender non conforming and intersex people; and black women, due to racist ideas about femininity. It is a failure of the Equality Act not to protect these people's need for safe access to toilet facilities.
At this crucial moment, UVW-SAW calls on allies in the architectural profession to use their voices
A concerned coalition of architectural academics based at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Goldsmiths Centre for Research Architecture, including Ben Campkin, Ged Ribas Goody, Lo Marshall, and Barbara Penner, summarised the consultation as so:
"The government's consultation is based on false premises of binary gender and biological essentialism, which do not reflect the actual diversity of bodies and experiences. It disregards the needs of certain users, including trans, intersex and gender non-conforming people, who are especially vulnerable to harassment and violence in public facilities. It raises the question: why should toilets continue to be divided by gender at all, given that users' needs are known to be shaped by many factors (age, health, ability, gender, caring responsibilities, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation)?"
At this crucial moment, UVW-SAW calls on allies in the architectural profession to use their voices. The government call for evidence states they will listen to relevant stakeholders with "technical knowledge of building regulations".
After years of designing desegregated multi-user facilities, architects know that there are a host of both practical and rights-based reasons that legislation must remain flexible here. Support for desegregated multi-user toilet facilities results as much from their ability to create an inclusive environment as their practical benefits.
Tightening regulations in this area would make the architect's task harder. Through good design, of lobby spaces in particular, perceived negative aspects can often be overcome.
Some of the UK's most prominent practices claim allyship to the LGBTQ+ community. Now is the time to follow up on those commitments
Enhanced privacy can be achieved with a shift from urinals to cubicles, and by specifying full height cubicle doors. Improved safety is simple to implement with a communal handwashing area that can be well observed from circulation spaces, providing greater transparency and preventing opportunities for bullying and harassment.
Building Regulations have never before enforced segregated facilities. Today's Approved Document G for England simply asks for, "Sanitary conveniences of the appropriate type for the sex and age of the persons using the building".
This wording is just open enough to allow for diverse applications, including some religious contexts that require segregated toilets, but there is already an outdated presumption towards segregated facilities embedded into regulations and guidance. We simply cannot risk the introduction of new, tighter regulations.
The ARB and RIBA code of conducts ask that we "treat everyone fairly" and not discriminate because of "gender reassignment", "sex", or "sexual orientation". Year after year, some of the UK's most prominent practices display the LGBTQ+ Pride flag in June, claiming allyship to the LGBTQ+ community. Now is the time to follow up on those commitments.
Architectural workers must stand in solidarity with trans and gender non-conforming people in opposition to this attack on the basic human right of trans and gender non-conforming people to use the bathroom with their dignity and safety intact.
Image courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection.