Bra burning and the debate over separate or shared public toilets - Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes weighs in on the transgender toilet debate

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Entrance of a toilet divided into male and female sections by gender icons. Illustration of the concept of legal requirements for toilets in workplaces and public areas
There is a growing debate over whether public toilets should be separate or shared (Dragon Claws/Getty Images)

Recently on BBC Radio 5 Live, Stephen Nolan covered the subject of toilets. Fair enough, important to us all. The debate was around the old fashioned system of separate areas for men and women versus unisex, which is a contentious issue.

In Paris I remember my poor mother’s shock when she was at the loo and a man walked out of another cubicle. But the same lady in a cafe in Belfast, where there was a queue for the ladies, returned in no time; how did she manage that? By going into the gents...

Nolan’s guest was feminist campaigner and founder of Transgender Trend, Stephanie Davies-Arai, who talked good sense challenging a lot of questions over around 20 minutes, mostly about women and men sharing toilets and changing rooms. Stephanie came down on the old fashioned idea of separate facilities.

It seemed Nolan couldn’t adjust his thinking to the fact that the majority of women like and need privacy at a time like this, something Stephanie pointed out to him.

His response was that even in a unisex area, using a toilet means going behind a closed door so privacy was maintained but as she countered there’s usually a gap under and over most doors and for some males this is an invitation to use a camera to take photographs.

This is not so far-fetched, and it’s not unknown for worse to happen. There was a time in one of my former workplaces when a man, a stranger, climbed up on the next-door toilet to watch a disabled member of staff. She was rightly traumatised as were we all. He legged it and got away.

Apparently 98% of sexual offences are committed by males, however the majority of men go about their business with absolutely no intention of embarrassing anyone but at the same time women don’t want men on the other side of the wall or curtain as they relieve themselves or try on trousers.

And So It Went On...

The conversation touched on the transgender debate, to which Stephanie basically advised that if the transgender community campaigned for a third space it could save a lot of hassle. At least the discussion opened the door for conversation and getting some opinions of people here in Northern Ireland.

Thomas told me his response to the unisex toilet discussion: “I wouldn’t wish most gents’ toilets on my worst enemy. Men’s toilets are usually stinking because most men have terrible aim and miss the urinal and the toilet bowl or when they get older, just miss it, period. The only way a unisex toilet will work is if both men and women sit to do their business.”

Mary had no doubt that separate male and female areas are essential: “I have a disabled mum and when we’re out and she needs to go to the toilet it takes time and the thought of any men watching is just awful.

“She would be so embarrassed and so would I. We use the disabled toilet where we can but she isn’t always in a wheelchair - she’s usually on sticks, so progress is slow and she needs to keep her dignity.”

Ann wasn’t so bothered: “It’s sad if a man gets his excitement by filming under a door but if unisex toilets do come in they’d need to be monitored by staff and a camera in full view to record if anything is going on.”

On the other hand Lynn is adamant: “No I would prefer singles, I don’t want to see or hear men on the other side of the wall and if there are urinals it would be totally unacceptable.

“I might be old fashioned but I like my privacy and the fact I can take my time washing my hands and touching up my make-up.”

In the days of the Roman Empire unsanitary communal toilets were the way to go, rows and rows of them, for men only. They were a social hub where conversations were struck up, even business conducted but there was also built in privacy because the long flowing togas covered a multitude of sins...

Women Are Becoming More Vocal

The bra burning days are over now, instead of strident feminism it’s the voice of reason and well constructed arguments.

And so the Radio 5 Live item surrounding toilets went on and on to the point where Nolan asked Stephanie did she not agree that men could feel threatened in a unisex toilet. Her reply? Women don’t tend to expose themselves or film men under the door, they aren’t given to voyeurism.

The whole thing wound up when it seemed to me that Stephanie was getting really tired of the argument, telling Nolan: “For women especially, privacy from the male sex is important but you don’t seem to have an understanding of that.” End of interview.