If you were to write a list of all the things that you would expect were going to cause issues when you started your journey towards transition, you could easily be forgiven for missing off what for many, comes to be quite literally a “pain in the **** “. What am I talking about ? It’s the dreaded toilet issue……………
Three days into a new role, I was called into my bosses office and when I arrived, I saw a rep from HR sitting beside him. Not the sort of sight you want to greet you, particularly when your boss opens up with “we’ve had a complaint from one of the girls which we need to raise with you”.
Nervous, I listened as he explained “one of my colleagues had complained that I was using the female toilet, when as a trans person, I should be using the male one”. Taken aback, all I could do was listen to HR offer their proposed solution of using the disabled toilet in another building. Although, far from ideal and something which for many trans people would be deeply offensive, being new in role, I went with the “ok for now. Anything to keep the peace. I’d like to return to this point at sometime in the future though and hopefully get a more informed and balanced decision.” As I said, not ideal, but it seemed to fit for everyone around the table, allowed us to get on with the day and more importantly, allowed me to use the facilities !!
It turned out though that the disabled toilet was a 7 minute walk away making a round trip in the order of 20 minutes, which caught the attention of my boss, leading him to comment that I was “away from my desk a bit more than he was expecting”, so I explained that the disabled toilet was in another building and hence the time. “Hmmm he said, I guess we haven’t really thought this through, what would you suggest ?” Taking the initiative, I suggested that I organised an after work party for the following Friday at a bar that I had heard the team talking about and told him to leave the rest to me.
With the promise of free drinks and food, it was easy to get everyone to come along and as we sat idly chatting, waiting for our first drinks order, things seemed to be going well. It’s nice to meet people outside of work and chat about non-work stuff. As our waiter arrived with the first round of drinks and obligatory nibbles, I asked him where the facilities were and excused myself from the group for a moment. Returning, the HR lady asked where I disappeared to, so I replied “the ladies” and no sooner had I said it one of my colleagues asked “you can do that ?” the awkward silence that followed told me that we had arrived at “that point”, so what else was there to say but “well, yeh, why shouldn’t I ?” .
The conversation then went back and forth for a while, but (possibly thanks to more alcohol) I eventually got the following answers to my question.
- “You’re not really a woman” and “You haven’t transitioned yet”
- “You hear so many things about what you sort of people get upto in there”
- “It’s a personal space, I feel like you being in it will threaten or violate it”
- “Men are so much more untidy and unhygienic than women, we don’t want our toilet being left unclean”
- “We don’t have any stand-up urinals”
- “You don’t need tampons”
- “Why can’t you carry on using the disabled toilet”
- “Why doesn’t the company provide gender neutral toilets – I’ve heard they’re popular with you people”
- “Why do we have to compromise ? We could employ a proper woman and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Not easy to listen to listen to (and a little weird) but when you’re trying to tease information like this out, I’ve always found that it’s best to be sensitive to the opposing point of view and non-judgemental. After all, you’re trying to work out what the issue is, so it doesn’t hurt to listen in the first instance. It doesn’t always work and certainly takes patience, but in my experience, if you launch into rationale based on the law and zero tolerance, people just become defensive, close up and ultimately disengage, resulting in no-one really getting what they want. You might have to reinforce your case by playing that card, but for me, it’s best to use it sparingly and crucially at the right time. In workplace situations, like mine, remember, such matters are usually judged in accordance with some form of grievance procedure, which usually features as a first step, communication between the affected parties before any escalation. You therefore want to be sure you cover that part, otherwise you can risk your genuine issue being masked by “not following procedure”, “being awkward to work with” as well as resulting in bad feeling between you and your colleagues.
So, knowing what the concerns were, I could then offer suggestions, explanations, education even information to help change the perception of these being problems, into things they didn’t know, but were actually harmless. Approaching it in this way gave people the opportunity to say “oh, I didn’t know that, I guess that’s ok.” It also facilitated them backing out of their position with an amount of “saving face”, which can be another important thing to consider when you’re trying to get someone to agree with you.
What did I say to each issue though ? Well, lots, but in summary…
“You’re not really a woman and haven’t transitioned yet”. Correct, I’m not and won’t be transitioning. However I have the right to use the facilities associated with the gender that I choose to present in and often for me, that’s as a female.
“You hear so many things about what you sort of people get upto in there“. I’m not really sure what you’ve heard, but I guess you’re talking about having sex. Usually, having sex is either a solo affair, involves two or more, is consensual or non-consensual. Firstly, let me stress that I don’t go to the trouble of buying clothes, jewellery, shoes (OMG shoes) getting made up each morning, then coming to work, just to “crack one off in the toilet” – nothing could be further from my mind. All I want to do is use the facilities, adjust my clothes and check my makeup then get out. Pure and Simple. Secondly, we’re all capable of having sex in the toilet, if we choose to, but in just the same way that I assume you don’t, I don’t either. There are far more appealing places for me to do that, rather than the work environment !!! Thirdly, if anyone approached me for sex, I would decline, but if it continued, I’d report the person for sexual harassment as again, that’s not what I’m coming to work for, like you. Finally, statistics suggest I am far more at risk of being attacked as a trans person if I use male or disabled facilities, so carrying on as we are, actually puts me in potential danger as a person, particularly when the disabled facilities are remote to the office I’m working in, as they are.
“It’s a personal space, I feel like you being in it will threaten or violate it”. I understand that facilities like the bathroom are personal, that you can feel exposed and potentially vulnerable while you’re in there. I get that. Remember though, I’m there just to use the facilities, as you are. I’m not there to ogle, letch or make you feel uncomfortable. Your feelings of vulnerability while you’re in there are also true for me and it’s far more likely that I won’t interact with you while I’m in there, unless you feel comfortable enough to approach me first. I’m not asking you to place my concerns above yours, I’m just pointing out they’re the same and as long as we can trust each other to show respect, then there’s really no need for this to be an issue.
“Men are so much more untidy and unhygienic than women, we don’t want our toilet being left unclean” As far as I’m aware, good hygiene isn’t gender based, it’s actually a human behaviour. I know that as a group, you buy scented soap, flowers etc for the bathroom to make it a more pleasant environment for you all and I’m happy to join in with that. Like you though, once I’ve made that investment, why would I ruin it by treating it disrespectfully ? If you’re talking about things like skidmarks or leaving the toilet seat up, overspray, I consider that it’s my responsibility to leave the facilities in the same state that I would wish to find them, so you can rest assured that those things won’t happen.
“We don’t have any stand-up urinals”. Correct, I can sit down though……………….
“You don’t need tampons”. Correct, that’s why I don’t buy them like some other genetic women. Incidentally, there are also condoms in the machine too……………. Joking aside, remember for me, it’s a bathroom, I use the toilet, adjust my clothes, check my makeup then leave. Pure and Simple.
“Why can’t you carry on using the disabled toilet”. Initially, in response to the first complaint, the suggestion was to use the disabled toilet. But now, having done that for a week, the company has expressed an additional concern with the length of time it takes me, because of the distance involved. The most obvious answer to this is to use the ladies, which is closer. However, we all have to be comfortable with this which is why we’re here talking about it now. I understand that you have concerns and you don’t like the company putting you in this position. I’m asking for you to listen to me and trust me, in the same way that I am trusting you with who I am and extend me the privilege of letting me use the ladies, it’s not a reversible decision though, if you feel that I’m abusing that trust, let me know and I’ll address it, if you feel it is continuing, we return to the current arrangement. Incidentally, please understand that many trans people consider the use of the disabled toilet as offensive as it categorises them as disabled, which we’re not.
“Why doesn’t the company provide gender neutral toilets – I’ve heard they’re popular with you people”. That could be a long term solution, but I don’t think I can hold on for that long, so we have to find a way of moving forward with the best compromise we can get. That compromise has to be the best balance between the company and your position. I’m not sure where you have heard that from, but for most trans people and an increasing number of companies, the most popular choice is to use the bathroom that the person presents in, we’re people like you – not “you people”. Options like gender neutral toilets are primarily a preference for architects as they seek to either reduce floorspace or increase productive areas within a given space.
“Why do we have to compromise ? We could employ a proper woman and it wouldn’t be a problem.” I was awarded the position after a series of interviews and tests, which showed I was the best person for the job. That process exemplifies what diversity is all about. In employing me, there are certain things which have to be considered, just as there are for other people the company employs. In short, if it wasn’t this perceived issue, it could be another, which could lead to a similar conversation.
So, in a nutshell, that’s what we talked about and what seemed to work for us. There were other bits too and lots of back and forth between us all and crucially listening as well as talking. At the end of the afternoon though, everyone felt comfortable enough that I could use the ladies and now, 4 months in, it’s not a problem. Hard work and it’s taken some time to get here. Will it work for you though ? I don’t know, but I hope it helps inform your debate, if you’re forced to have it. Ultimately though, in my situation, rest assured everyone was and is (quite literally) relieved !!!