Once upon a time, I used to be an active participant in Glasgow’s queer scene. Okay, I’m 28, so chronologically speaking it wasn’t that long ago. Yet in some ways it feels like another lifetime. Nowadays I would never call myself queer – trying to reclaim a slur is a futile endeavour and, as Audre Lorde observed, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But back then I did. Because my peers and (mostly former) friends used the word queer, and I wanted nothing more than to fit in.
My relationship with these queer spaces wasn’t entirely comfortable. While I admired the creativity and community spirit to be found in Glasgow’s queer scene, I was often the only Black person in the room. So, I felt conspicuous. But what really undermined my ability to participate in and connect with queer community was less of an existential question, and more of a practical one: how could I, as a young woman, safely go to the bathroom?
You see, a number of organisations had taken to covering the venue’s signs for female and male bathrooms. There would be ‘Gender-Neutral Toilet’, ‘Gender-Neutral Toilet’, and ‘Disabled Toilet.’ And while the intentions behind this scheme were noble, as a survivor of sexual violence I had no desire to go to the bathroom in an enclosed space with random men. The worst-case scenario of what might happen was already branded onto my memory.
Looking at those three doors, I felt like I’d walked into a queer edition of the Monty Hall problem. Except instead of trying to win a car, I was hoping to avoid being raped. I knew what was in the disabled toilet, but didn’t want to use it in case someone with mobility issues needed that facility. That left two other doors.
The first time, I opened the door to the former men’s room. There was a man using the urinal. He turned and leered at me while holding his penis. I fled the film screening. The second time, I chose the women’s toilets. But my relief was short lived. A man much taller and stronger than me walked into the bathroom just as I emerged from the cubicle. And seeing him standing between me and the exit, I felt an animal sort of panic. Nothing happened. But it could have. He knew it as well as I did. And that was the moment when I decided there wasn’t going to be a third time.
The first time, I opened the door to the former men’s room. There was a man using the urinal. He turned and leered at me while holding his penis. I fled the film screening.
As a woman, I have spent countless hours of my life curtailing my freedom and altering my behaviour in the hope of escaping men’s violence. Girls are taught to do safety work from early childhood, and by the time we reach adulthood it’s a deeply ingrained habit. And it made me furious that LGBT organisations were making women do extra safety work, were putting us at additional risk of male violence, while having the audacity to describe these policies as ‘inclusive’.
I didn’t feel able to say any of this to the organisational teams, people whom I had heard describing women’s concerns about gender-neutral toilets as bigotry. They dismissed worries like mine as a Trojan horse for transphobia, rather than recognising the widespread nature of male violence against women and girls. We live in a country where a quarter of all women experience male violence. Our fears of rape are not the product of paranoia, but a response to this sexist society. Safeguarding may not be a glamorous cause. But it is a necessary one, if women and girls are to have full access to public life.
Additionally, women take on average twice as long as men do in the toilet. We have to deal with menstruation. We are also more likely to suffer from urinary incontinence due to health events like pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. And women are more likely to bring babies and small children into the bathroom. These are all reasons why the queue for the women’s toilets is often significantly longer than the men’s room. The status quo barely works for women as it is. And taking away female toilets creates even more challenges for us.
A policy is not inclusive if it makes the space unworkable for more than half of the general population. But the exclusion of women – or the possibility that we would self-exclude for our own safety, as I did – didn’t seem to matter to LGBT organisations.
A policy is not inclusive if it makes the space unworkable for more than half of the general population. But the exclusion of women – or the possibility that we would self-exclude for our own safety, as I did – didn’t seem to matter to LGBT organisations. And so I diverted my energy towards spaces where women are a priority, not an afterthought.
When older lesbian friends first told me that they weren’t much invested in LGBT spaces, I was still naïve enough to be surprised. I’d ask these women what had put them off, and the answer was always the same: LGBT spaces are male-dominated. In various ways they warned me that the needs of men are treated as default, whereas the needs of lesbians were viewed more as an optional add-on; that the interests of men are prioritised, often at women’s expense. My older lesbian friends were right. And they were also kind enough not to say “I told you so” in the face of my disappointment.
Claire Heuchan is an author, essayist, and Black radical feminist. She writes the award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.
Claire, your op-ed gives me the chance to get something off my chest. WHY do women tolerate standing in long lines for the ladies' restroom while men whizz in and out of theirs? Why hasn't somebody figured out that in public establishments, there should always be at least TWO ladies' rooms for every men's room? This isn't brain surgery! It's downright cruel to treat women as if their anatomy and urinary needs are the same as men's. A female legislator should introduce a bill; I think it would have a lot of support.