Features Published 9 October 2019

Old Vic’s Gender Neutral Toilets: A Dialogue

"I am considered a debate topic, and I have learned not to flinch": Jess Rahman-González and Oli Isaac discuss the emotional impact of the backlash against the Old Vic's trans inclusive toilets.
Jess Rahman-Gonzalez and Oli Isaac

The Old Vic’s new toilets.

JESS: We are spilling out of the Northern line on our way to rehearsals when The Stage publishes Sarah Ditum’s article criticizing the Old Vic’s decision to implement gender neutral toilets. Rehearsals for a play in which we hire cis body doubles to take over our lives as trans people, to see if we ever get to author our own stories. 

OLI: It feels weird to be in rehearsals today. In our breaks, we witness the ongoing fallout of the OV’s decision. It is hard to create whilst this is happening in real time. I am finding it hard to disengage.

JESS: I am finding it hard too. It feels different this time. I mean, yeah I am habituated to the transphobia circulated by the British media. I am routinely told I do not exist, and I have stopped batting an eyelid. I am considered a debate topic, and I have learned not to flinch. But seeing The Stage commission this piece, I am hurt. Me and you work across different forms, but I think theatre is the place where we’ve felt the most comfortable to navigate our gender identities. So I am hurt because the call is coming from inside the house.

OLI: And that was the twist this time. This was me when I saw it was The Stage that published the article… 

But in all seriousness, it really is humiliating that we can’t even go to the bathroom without it becoming a political talking point.

JESS: Yeah, and as a AFAB non-binary person, it is not a matter of going to the toilet that matches my identity, because neither does. Going to either bathroom is a risk. I count the floor tiles as I wait in line, hoping no-one pays attention to me. For me, gender neutral toilets are important because it makes going to the bathroom in public boring and mundane. That is all I want when navigating public spaces. 

OLI: Mundanity would be nice. I don’t want to have to wait until I know the bathroom is empty just so I can leave. And that’s one of the things that gets to me in Ditum’s article, when, baselessly, she claims that ‘mixed-sex facilities have been a boon to voyeurs wherever they’ve been tried.’ Even though the cubicles at the OV are floor to ceiling to provide maximum privacy. 

All this argument does is feed into this idea of trans people as a dangerous threat, even though our community are the most likely to experience violence and harassment in bathrooms. Countless studies show that harm is done to – not by – trans and gender non-conforming people in bathrooms. And as an AMAB non-binary person, I feel my identity under a microscope as soon as I push my hand against the bathroom door. I am transformed into a boogeyman, a deviant, a pervert. This narrative of fear is at the root of why trans people have some of the highest rates of urinary tract infections (UTI) – and why 59 percent of trans people in the US report having avoided bathrooms all together.

JESS: Not to get too Google scholar, but the Guardian also cited studies that gender-neutral toilets significantly reduce waiting times, which was (and is) a driving force behind OV’s decision. For example, research suggests that gender-neutral toilets in a West End-style venue would see the wait time for women fall from seven and a half minutes to just half a minute. But the online outrage over gender neutral toilets was never really about queuing times. It is transphobia disguised in a language of practicalities and convenience. 

OLI: It never is. Like whenever the ‘think of the children’ mantra is rolled out, you know it’s not really about the children.

JESS: And no-one is forcing people to use the bathroom they don’t want to use. OV are labelling them as either cubicles or urinals so people can decide for themselves which they are more comfortable using. But I also think that this really should be an intermediate stage for further change. The final outcome should be that all bathrooms are single cubicles. This doesn’t just benefit trans people, but disabled people, and parents who require changing facilities. 

Which is another thing that is being ignored. Shona Louise published a blog after visiting the Old Vic to see the new refurbishments. Louise talks about the extensive changes made to improve the experiences of disabled theatre-goers so that ‘in theory, I would not need any assistance from staff, which is a rare experience for me.’ Gender neutral toilets are only one part of a larger attempt by the OV to improve access, and support the experiences of those typically excluded by the design of the venue. 

OLI: But this isn’t just about the intricacies of the Old Vic, it’s about a wider change in how we approach gender.  

JESS: I mean yeah, ultimately, gender neutral bathrooms are not enough to protect trans people. Considering the transphobia we have witnessed online – with tweets threatening to rip signage off at the OV and Mumsnet posts on their organizing tactics – do the OV have protocols in place to deal with any backlash against trans people in the new bathrooms? If we step into the building, is our safety guaranteed by the presence of gender neutral toilets alone? 

OLI: I’m not sure after seeing everything the past few days that I would necessarily feel safe. But this is also not an isolated event in the UK. The outrage over the Old Vic’s decision is part of a wider hostility that seems to permeate like, every discussion about trans issues and rights in the UK.

One of the things that really hurt over the weekend was the reports suggesting that the Government could shelve long-overdue plans to reform gender recognition laws. Laws that would allow self-identification for trans people. And I don’t think the overlap of the GRA news and the transphobic responses to the OV’s decision is a coincidence. With self-identification being challenged, it makes it harder for trans and non-binary people to use the bathroom they are comfortable with. Even if a delay to self-identification is considered by lawmakers, it signals to the wider public that trans rights are still in limbo. It legitimizes transphobia, which we see unfold on our timelines and in our public bathrooms. 

Equalities minister Liz Truss – who is in charge of reportedly kicking the GRA ‘into the long grass’ – has previously backed calls for greater ‘free speech’ around trans issues. 

JESS: Calls for free speech around trans stuff feels like code for getting a free pass to be transphobic. But it’s okay because it’s neutral. Lol.

OLI: Yeah I mean every day we see cruel attacks on trans people on TV, in columns, and online routinely disguised as part of a balanced, two-sided debate. This misguided framing has enabled one of this country’s leading theatre news websites to platform transphobia as part of a ‘neutral conversation’. 

JESS: I love democracy. 

OLI: So what’s our rallying cry? 

JESS: I guess the first thing would be to write to the Old Vic supporting the gender neutral bathrooms. But this goes beyond the OV and beyond bathrooms. 

The attack on trans people by the media for existing is never ending and exhausting. I cannot see when it will end until cis people in the theatre industry – and elsewhere – stand up for the dignity of trans people and demand better. 

OLI: Admittedly, it feels weird to rally around my bowels and bladder but sadly that’s where we are I guess. It’s frustrating that we keep returning to this debate but hopefully, by standing together and listening to trans people, this discussion will move out of the toilet and away from defining bathrooms. Hopefully, we can put this same energy towards championing trans artists and making real institutional changes so that trans people are safe to continue to carve out spaces in theatre as their own. 

JESS: So we will return to our rehearsal room tomorrow, and try again. 

For more on Jess and Oli’s work visit http://www.upstart-theatre.co.uk/dare-festival-2019-clumsy-body-doubles/

This article is a response to an article by Sarah Ditum, which was published in The Stage and then deleted on 7th October – as was Amber Massie-Blomfield’s article in defence of the Old Vic’s policy. You can read The Stage’s statement here.

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Jess Rahman-Gonzalez and Oli Isaac is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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