Monday, 3 April 2017

Perplexing Peeing: A response to India Willoughby's Article

I don't tend to talk a lot about bathrooms. In fact, when I'm out attending job interviews or meeting friends in restaurants I try to avoid using the bathroom at all costs. I've always had a complex concerning the cleanliness of public toilets and if the cubicle doesn't have a lock on it, I can't settle down to pee anyways. I'll add an interesting (probably baffling to some) additional personal point: I've never used a urinal. I've never peed standing up. Apparently my Mum couldn't find a way to encourage me to try when I was being potty trained and in the end it was thought best to let me have my own way and just explain to friends and teachers that it was "easier mechanically" for me to pee sitting down. As a teenager and young adult I had no desire to change this element of my personal regime so it's pretty much habitual. You can laugh but still, it's nobody's business but my own!

I've felt safer peeing in a locked cubicle, preferably with nobody else using the bathroom facility at the time. When I worked in an Accounts Office, I used to go to the loo whenever the office was near empty at lunchtime, even though I had permission to use the disabled or ladies toilet from my coworkers and HR. I imagine there are rather a few folks like me, regardless of their gender identity who feel the same. As long as the toilet locks and is clean, I've used it but just as little as possible.

I've never had a specific issue with gender neutral toilets with lockable doors because university toilets in my accommodation block for the first two years of my degree were gender neutral, as were the showers.  At home my parents, younger brother and I use the same loo and bath anyways. Even my local dentist surgery has adopted a gender neutral bathroom, with no complaints having been made on their very transparent customer service board. Sometimes I wonder what the fuss is all about.

Anyways, Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) came around this year and I was excited to see how trans voices would be disseminated across Twitter; after all TDOV is designed to help  to highlight the dazzling variety of voices within the trans community. Yes, we had gender critical radical feminists tweeting their pieces about trans being a "trend" that we've reached the peak of and there were those who accused trans activists of encouraging children to transition (hence the "Don't Trans Kids" hashtag) etc etc but most tweets were from positive, confident trans people who just wanted to raise awareness of their own stories and lift the voices of others. Even the Women and Equalities Committee got in with the action, helping to draw attention to aspects of their Trans Inquiry report, which recommends for example that equality legislation should have protected characteristics based on "Gender Identity" and looking at non-gendering (aka non-binary) passports. Amazing.

Then I came across Pink News' contribution to TDOV. When I clicked on the page, I they've managed to get an amazing trans activist to talk about their experience of overcoming personal and professional boundaries. Enter India Willoughby with her "Only Transitioning women should enter ladies' bathrooms" article. It's certainly stimulated some heated discussions, not least a number of commentators trying to unpick Willoughby's definition of "real trans women". I must say that I found Willoughby's comments intriguing but not particularly surprising, given her previous form; I remember the R4 Women's Hour when she was interviewed by Dame Jenny Murray when she suggested that she agreed with the Dorchester Hotel's uniform policy which advised that women should "shave their legs" and "put on make up" when covering reception. Now, as I've said before, I'm OK with companies enforcing dress codes when there is a valid health and safety need; if you're working as a hotel cleaner it's probably not a good idea to wear high heeled shoes because of the potential of tripping over hazards...e.g. electrical cables. However, the Dorchester's requirements did not fall under that category. Does every woman really have to make sure they wear make-up and have a manicure before they come to work on reception? I don't wear make-up during the day and have no intention of starting, so I wouldn't be able to work at the Dorchester reception even though I may be wearing a smart blouse and trousers. Willoughby stated that hairy legs on a woman was "dirty" but on a man "wasn't dirty" yet she of all people must know that pre-op trans women who are yet to take hormones may not shave their legs and even if they did, shaving your legs alone doesn't make you any more of a "real woman". Some feminists choose not to shave their legs or armpits in protest against a stereotypical view of femininity. Yet in her response to Murray's article, Willoughby categorically stated that the rule that had been discussed "applied to men and women" and that she had been portrayed as someone who believed that "all women should have perfectly shaved legs at all times" which was "fake news". The problem is that Willoughby didn't clarify whether the dress code itself should be challenged and reviewed, even in terms of its language whereas I think it should have been. Gendered dress codes can be openly criticised by trans activists if they choose to enter the debate.

Given these comments, I did think Willoughby truly believes that trans people can only exist within a gender binary and have to follow certain stereotypical rules to be seen as their true selves by society. When it comes to the bathroom facilities issue, I wasn't surprised to see her talking about protecting trans women from being discriminated against in terms of accessing facilities that correspond with their gender.

Claiming Trans Rights:

Willoughby believes that "it's all too easy for someone to claim trans rights who isn't trans". This seems to me to suggest that Willoughby believes our understanding of trans rights should be purely restricted to a gender binary perspective; you acquire rights when you choose to medically transition and you don't get any access to protections under the law if you don't choose to medically transition.

One immediate issue with this line of thought is that Willoughby hasn't stated exactly when someone should acquire trans legal protections. We're talking not just which bathroom a trans person can legally use here but whether a trans person can be allowed adopt a particular style of office attire which corresponds to their gender identity or whether a trans person can bring a claim of discrimination against an employer according to the current protected characteristic under the Equality Act, that of Gender Reassignment Surgery (which really should be Gender Identity).

So when does Willoughby believe a trans person should acquire legal protection? Does it happen when they first define as trans? Does it happen when they have their baseline tests and initial discussions with the GP? Does it happen when they come out openly to family members or friends? Does it happen when they first attend a Gender Identity Clinic and go through assessments? Does it happen when they start their "Lived in Experience" period? Does it happen when they disclose their intention to transition to their employer/job centre advisor? Does it happen when they start taking cross-sex hormones? Does it happen when they're about to go through Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS)? Or do they only acquire protection when they get your Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) from their GP and legally change their gender status (trans people acquire the full rights of their gender anyways on the presentation of the GRC!!) Interestingly, getting access to a GRC doesn't require you to have undergone GRS to be awarded but the trans person must be diagnosed with "persistent gender dysphoria" and convince a panel that they intend to live in their acquired gender for the rest of their lives.

For me, acquisition of rights for me should start at the moment you state your wish to transition to your GP and start living in the "acquired gender". That means for at least 2 years (or more with current GIC waiting times), trans women and men should be protected fully under the Equality Act even before they go through or decide to go through GRS. That's with me being forced to think about the process within the narrow confines of a gender dual binary, which I don't accept anyways. Does Willoughby believe that those waiting to be seen in a GIC or waiting for cross hormone therapy should stay in the bathroom that corresponds to their biological sex?
As Karen Pollock indicates in her fantastic article for The Queerness,  "The UK does not need a cut-price Caitlyn Jenner"(, even if a GRC card could be produced for trans binary people to waive about to gain access to the ladies' toilets, "some will still complain" and management may feel obliged to deny even a post GRS trans woman access. Trans people may have protections under the Equality Act but those protections may be difficult to enforce; would a trans person be prepared to take a landlord to court over denial of access and do they have sufficient funds to cover the court costs?

What about non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer & trans non-binary people?

It's all well and good for those trans men and women who are able to medically transition (if they have no medical problems which prohibit them from transitioning) to be able to use the bathroom associated with their acquired gender. Yet in the 21st century, gender identity has been revealed as being fluid. If you identify as non-binary, gender-fluid, gender-queer  (and haven't transitioned beforehand), which bathroom are you meant to use or should be allowed to use? If you're a non-binary DVA survivor who has suffered at the hands of a female perpetrator, you may find it difficult to use a ladies' bathroom. The number of DVA non-binary survivors may appear small on paper but they are deserving of thought in any discussion around bathroom facilities. We have to be very careful not to accidentally or deliberately erase non-binary and gender-fluid people from discussions on gender identity, no matter how trivial those discussions may appear to some.

Willoughby probably doesn't 100% agree with the concept of non-binary or gender-fluid identities. That's fine. I find it difficult to pathologise my trans status but Willoughby sees trans people as having a medical condition that necessarily needs "fixing" so as to help them live their lives in a happy way and without that diagnosis of gender dysphoria, trans binary people would find it difficult to argue for additional legal protections (although they already have more than non-binary, gender-fluid and genderqueer folks). Willoughby may feel that her identity as a woman is being threatened by the existence of those who do not wish to be tick-boxed into a binary norm. I prefer to let people self-define their gender identity without necessarily fearing that they are using this self-definition to hurt others. This just goes to show that trans people do have differing opinions, ethically and legally, some of which may never change. As is the case perhaps with mine and Willoughby's views about crossdressers.

Crossdressers and Transvestites:

Willoughby mentions crossdressers (male only though despite the term referring to both genders...binary again) as those who "put on a dress when they feel like it" or who "express their girly side for (an) hour and half". There are crossdressers who self-define as crossdressers and are proud of their identity. Most crossdressers are perfectly fine with using male bathrooms anyways, the same is the case with drag queens. Even drag Kings may use men's' or women's bathrooms without much fuss being caused. However, I do recognise that there could be trans women who could be perceived as crossdressers and thus be locked out of discussion based on that perception alone, even if they dress as women most, if not all of the time. Equally there are non-binary people who have male birth sex characteristics who may be perceived incorrectly as male crossdressers and who don't want to use the male or female bathroom.

Willoughby argues that crossdressers have to stay out the ladies "for their own safety and that of trans women". I fail to see how a crossdresser who might end up using the cubicle next to me would be automatically endangering my own safety. I've been in a dangerous situation before, having been orally raped on the street at night walking back from a nightclub in York alone by a cis man and even I recognise that most cis men are not a threat to my safety so don't tell me that I should be automatically afraid of a crossdresser who could turn out to be gay anyways!

I read a fantastic response to Willoughby's article from Sarah Savage, (who has written an amazing book for children with trans non-binary activist Fox Fisher entitled "Are you a boy or are you a girl?"). In "India Willoughby, transvestites deserve protection too" (, Savage talks about her experience as a transvestite, being "on a building site during the day and in the evenings, pulled out a charity shop frock to relax" and that when out partying in women's clothing, she was presented with a bathroom dilemma: use a men's lavatory with "drunk men at the urinals....(who) didn't care whether (she) was a transvestite or transsexual from outer space" or use the ladies where she could pee in peace. I found the frankness of describing her experience moving and I am sympathetic to the view that protections need to be tightened so that all gender variant people are protected by the Equality Act. That's why the Women and Equalities Committee recommendation that the protected characteristic should change from "GRS" to "Gender Identity" could make a difference to the lives of crossdressers and transvestites as well as non-binary and trans people. Just a thought!

I am glad that Willoughby does take the time to clarify  that she doesn't want to "turn transvestites into "bogeymen". Transvestites have the right to dress how they want and act how they want provided they do so within the confines of the law. It's how ALL of us should conduct ourselves, whilst traversing the boundaries of our supposedly tolerant and inclusive modern society in a tolerant and informed manner. Now "Divine" (not the fabulous drag queen whose song "You Think You're A Man But You're A Boy I personally adore), the person who messaged Ms Willoughby to tell her that Murray was right was behaving abysmally. However, if "Divine" had messaged me, I'd have told them they were fine to express their view but I'd have shook their criticism off. They may self-define as trans but the context that Ms Willoughby provides seems to indicate to me they may have been trying to troll her. They may even be non-binary but perhaps "Divine" doesn't really understand the full definition of trans or non-binary. Maybe they just don't want to understand. What is clear is that there will always be some people in the world who share "Divine's" opinion and believe that trans women can never be women (some whilst stating they are trans themselves). The best action we can take is counter such discrimination by encouraging the creation and development of appropriate HR resources for the workplace and create and develop educational resources to make sure that basic Sex and Relationships Education at Key Stage 3 or 4 includes discussions of gender identity of all types, (trans and non-binary identities).We should encourage open dialogue to foster a sense of tolerance and inclusion in our students. That can include looking at the importance of gender-neutral facilities in the workplace, in schools and in hospitals. Trans people should be prepared to speak in schools and answer difficult questions so that awareness is increased. That way we can continue to fight against stereotyping as well as fighting against  attempts to deny us (any of us) our own identity. Willoughby calls for "tough love" against those who wish to "blur the definition of trans". I think that a honest discussion on the practicalities of transforming the UK into a more tolerant place for trans people is needed but it must be one which doesn't seek to erase or demonise anyone else through fear of facing erasure. I don't deny that such a discussion may be difficult to facilitate. It needs to be far more wide-ranging than one that focuses on bathroom facilities. We need to talk about trans prisoner rights, about trans DVA survivors' rights and increasing access to GICs whilst also talking about non-binary prisoner rights, non-binary DVA survivors' rights and yes, even non-binary health provision.

Nuancing the view bathroom issue wise:

When it comes to the bathroom issue, I feel that it has to be discussed in a nuanced way- i.e. analysing concerns according to the situational context. That means looking at workplace bathroom use and public service use.


If a new employee enters the workplace and has notified HR that they are intending to transition, this should be enough to allow that employee to access the bathroom which fits with their acquired gender. HR have a duty to respect a trans employees' privacy but when a trans employee should feel confident enough to disclose their gender identity to their colleagues, there should not be an issue, whether they have transitioned surgically yet or not. If an employee doesn't want to disclose their gender identity but doesn't want to use a male or female bathroom, for whatever reason, including being non-binary, gender-fluid or genderqueer, provision should be made to create or adapt space in the organisation for gender-neutral facilities. In small and medium sized businesses I can understand that such provision can be difficult to make, so grants should be made available from the Government to try and help SMEs facilitate these changes. Otherwise, negotiation will be needed with existing employees as to whether the employee can use the disabled facilities (but only with expressed permission from disabled employees). Such discussions can be facilitated perfectly rationally by HR (or managers in SMEs).

Public toilets:

It's very important that HR and management deliver appropriate training to their frontline customer service employees, especially within the hospitality sector. Spotting the "signs" of whether a person is cis female or trans female pre-transition or transvestite can be difficult: a loud trans female wearing a dress could be misgendered as male based on their brash behaviour and a post-transition tall trans woman may still be mistaken for a male yet a loud, short transvestite who "passes" as female may be able to use the toilet without incident. Naturally incidents are going to occur and no amount of posturing is probably going to change the attitudes of some landlords. So rather than focussing on generic"signs", employees must be told to be vigilant and watch for potentially dangerous behaviour from anyone, regardless of their gender identity or lack of.  A zero-tolerance policy for unruly behaviour is a must.

Organisations must also consider whether gender-neutral facilities should be made available. That doesn't mean having to close the ladies' toilet or necessarily adapting disabled ones. As Pollock mentions in her article, there has to be more implementation of equality and diversity policies so that organisations remain compliant with provisions of the Equality Act. Pollock also mentions the much under-cited Kirkless case (bathroom denial on the basis of gender identity was ruled as discriminatory). Not every organisation wishes to comply fully but those that do should receive positive appraisals and be held up as role-models for others to follow.


As you can see, I'm not saying that anyone should have automatic access to bathroom facilities of any gender. At the same time, organisations have to be able to cater for employees and customers who are gender non-conforming as well as those who are binary trans or cis. This may mean thinking seriously about providing appropriate gender-neutral facilities in as many public spaces and private companies as possible so that everyone can feel safe and secure in their own skin to "pee where they want". What we must not do is give into fear rhetoric that somehow trans rights in the UK are going to be rolled back or not able to be applied properly because of a widened definition of trans. Yes we need to fight transmisogyny and transphobia but I'm not prepared to have to go back to a binary definition to do it. Instead, we confront gender stereotypes, we educate people about gender identity and facilitate practical discussions to try and reach a speedy resolution for all. Let's fight against trans violence and discrimination but let's not pretend that such a fight should be restricted to those who adhere to an dual gender binary identity alone. And yes, we have to be accepting of crossdressers and transvestites too. As Sarah Savage mentions, you never know whether the transvestite you see in the nightclub might decide to transition 5 or 10 years down the line.