Toilets have become the new battleground in the gender wars, with claims that the presence of trans women makes cis-gendered women vulnerable in these and other same-sex spaces. What has yet to become widely apparent, though, is that the arguments being used by feminists and fascists alike threatens the safety and wellbeing of all LGBTQI+ people.
As a disabled lesbian, my gender is often invisible in public toilets, since separate provision is usually made for men, women and disabled people. This reflects the popular view of disabled people as asexual and genderless. However, where provision is made within same-sex cubicles, I have become used to being asked/forced to leave. Although I identify strongly as a cisgendered woman, my failure to conform to gender norms in terms of dress and hairstyle means I am regarded as ‘looking like’ a man.
And this is where the problems begin. Who determines what a ‘real’ (cisgendered?) woman looks like? Many heterosexual women dress as androgynously as I do, at least some of the time. Women are naturally hairy, some more than others, and an increasing number reject shaving and depilatory creams. How ‘safe’ can a public toilet be, if all of us who fail to conform to artificial gender norms can be asked to leave (or indeed are physically removed)? How can any woman enjoy her right to dress and look exactly as she wishes, if other women can determine if she may then enter same-sex spaces?
The fact that a tiny number of abusive men will stop at nothing to pursue their victims doesn’t justify the belief that heterosexual men will pose as trans women in order to ‘gawk’ at strangers. Indeed, how stimulating is the sight of women quickly washing their hands and checking their hair? Is it really worth a heterosexual man spending considerable time, money and effort dragging up? Most would run away screaming at the thought. The last time I was sexually assaulted — and for women it’s always ‘the last time’ — was on a dance floor, not in a toilet. LGBTQI+ people already think twice about using public toilet facilities unless they know they can ‘pass’. Heterosexual fear of sexual desire in same-sex spaces forces thousands of LGBTQI+ athletes and sportspeople to stay closeted until retirement, with the resulting impact on their health and happiness.
The latest battleground is Hampstead women’s pond, where in fact trans women who can ‘pass’ have been swimming for decades. It is only now the authorities have made this official – and it would be illegal for them to do otherwise under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 — that criticism has arisen. Again, the issue is supposedly that heterosexual men will drag up in order to ‘gawk’. But this is to ignore the fact that, for lesbians and bisexual women, the women’s pond has long been one of the very few outdoor, alcohol-free, non-scene spaces where they can meet — or just lie back in the sun and admire — other LB women. Happy memories.
Unless we aim to police same-sex spaces for gender conformity and the suppression of sexual desire, we need to join up the conversation instead with the #MeToo campaign. The issue is not whether desire exists; the issue is how it’s expressed. Catherine Deneuve’s view of male sexual desire as being “wild and aggressive” reflects generations of teaching that men cannot control themselves sexually. (Lesbian desire is then equated with male desire.) But while abusers such as Harvey Weinstein have taken full advantage of this belief, it has never been true, and the majority of men reject it outright.
Scientists have proven that we all look at people, all of the time, in order to make choices and decisions essential to our survival. The issue is how long we look, our facial expression while doing so, and what we do next. We could all learn from the rules in place at ‘adult’ parties and clubs, where explicit consent is essential at every stage. When I was younger, clubs like Fist were the only places you could go to listen to the DJs without having your personal space invaded, or intrusive questions asked about why you used a mobility aid. We urgently need to agree a code of sexual conduct fit for the 21st century, where everything is based on mutual respect and consent, but gender conformity and the suppression of desire is not required. Only then will same-sex spaces become truly safe and accessible for everyone. If we fail to act, then everyone who cannot fit into so-called gender norms will be at risk.
Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90 is a Co-Chair of Regard, the national LGBTQI+ Disabled People’s Organisation. Her artwork No Hope of Rescue, highlighting the fact that the majority of emergency alarms in accessible toilets are unfit for purpose, is currently on exhibition at Open Barbers in Shoreditch. See www.ju90.co.ukfor the online version and more examples of her work.