Ah, that perennially popular - and contentious - subject, public toilets!
Contentious, that is, if talking about any departure from female-only and male-only facilities, whether laid on by the local authority, or as found in a pub or similar place. The subject came up for discussion in my circle the other night, and was rehashed today. As I understand it, a trans man has spearheaded a drive to have unisex toilets created everywhere in Brighton, or at least in those places where any person with a gender issue might go.
Apparently the person starting this initiative became unbearably concerned about his vulnerability to comment (or worse) in a regular men's loo. I don't know quite why this was, although I'm guessing that he was afflicted with a female-type build, and was generally lacking a convincing masculine appearance. Such a person would indeed feel at a disadvantage in an ordinary toilet frequented by ordinary men apt to notice anybody not clearly male. One can very easily sympathise. It's the mirror image of the trans woman's difficulty in toilets intended for women.
But I don't like the solution - to scrap any distinction between male and female toilets, and designate both as equally accessible by either gender, or whatever gender an individual considers themselves to be. Well, what woman wants to use a former male public toilet, with smelly urinals on display, and men standing there using them? And do I want to use a former female public toilet after a rowdy group of drunken and destructive male football fans has fouled it? Ugh. Think about it. Having to put my bare bottom near that alien urine on the seat, or risk treading in that mess on the floor, or indeed touching any surface that some unshaven lout, who never washes his hands - or just never washes - might have brushed against? What might I catch?
In fairness to well-behaved men of culture and social savoir-faire, there will be many male users of mixed toilets who will fastidiously do the right thing. But this behavioural ideal cannot be relied upon.
I will go further, and admit that not all women are pleasant company in a female loo. Who hasn't - in a club situation, anyway - been confronted by a drunken girl who has spewed her last few drinks on the floor, or is engaged in a loud tearful shouting-match, or apparently having sex, or taking drugs, in the next cubicle? Many women dribble a little urine when rising from the toilet seat - an anatomical consequence, completely commonplace - but some fail to have a wodge of tissues ready, and seem not to care what they leave for the next occupant to mop up.
Above all it's worth saying that at home all loos are unisex. And nobody bats an eyelid if the same toilet is visited by every family member: Mum, Dad, son and daughter. But - and it's a big but - it's always strictly one at a time. And another thing: everyone knows each other. There is trust and familiarity. And this will extend to visiting friends and relatives. Nobody is a stranger, with unknown and potentially vile habits and intentions. And so, in the home situation, 'unisex' works well.
Public loos however cater for multiple occupants who are usually complete strangers. It therefore matters that users feel safe and secure against people who might cause them trouble, embarrassment, or offence. It also matters that everyone observes a certain etiquette connected not only with personal hygiene, but with social contact. Men and women have basic physical differences, and pee in different ways. They also interact differently with others using the toilet at the same time, women usually not feeling inhibited about a quick preening session in front of the mirror, nor a friendly chat if the chance arises; whereas men will be in and out as fast as they can, never lingering, and will certainly avoid any amiable conversation in case their motives look questionable. All this suggests that the two main genders are best channelled into places especially designed for them.
This does however leave gender variant persons in an awkward position. Should they be catered for? Or rather, should meeting their special needs entail the disappearance of male-only and female-only public loos, by merging them?
Political Correctness enters the picture here. And if you are the sort to give weight to it, then I expect you will insist on unisex toilets, to make it impossible for anyone to feel excluded from a place to go to when they need to pee. Which is on one level a reasonable way of dealing with the problem - no distinctions, the same for everyone, as on a passenger aircraft, or a coach, or a train. But I think that most people actually want to continue with the old-fashioned and standard 'Ladies' and 'Gents' for at least some of the reasons I've already mentioned - and not be forced to use shared facilities.
So what's my own position, speaking from the older woman's point of view? I want to use women-only public toilets, not unisex ones, and these are my requirements:
# Modern, clean, heated, welcoming facilities with pleasant and lockable private cubicles.
# Wash basins, hand driers and a well-lit mirror.
# Ways to hang up or otherwise dump coats and bags while in the cubicle or washing hands afterwards, or retouching hair and make-up.
# Every female person using the toilet to observe the appropriate civilised behaviour that applies to women.
# No men. It's important that this is a women-only space. It's a sanctuary from men.
I am happy to share such facilities with very small children accompanied and closely supervised by a female parent or a responsible older female sibling. But I'd like to see school-age boys using the male toilets, escorted if necessary by a male parent or a responsible older male sibling. The point is, older male children are curious and sex-aware, and not always minded to behave appropriately. I do not for instance wish to be gawped at by a ten year old boy, who, for all I know, has typical adolescent thoughts seething in his brain.
What about 'transgender women'? I am not going to be religiously PC about this. Cheer me or boo me, I will feel totally comfortable only with specifically transsexual women who are clearly pushing their transition forward and embracing the female life lock, stock and barrel - and will one day end up indistinguishable from other women. I do of course have transsexual friends whose circumstances preclude rapid progress - well, that's fine too: I know what is in their hearts; and I hope that I'd recognise the same in a stranger.
But if someone who looks like a regular hairy man barges into a ladies' toilet saying 'I am a woman! I'm entitled to come in here! I have a moral right!' - without showing the slightest evidence that a woman really resides inside them - then I'd be upset about it. I might even feel frightened and threatened. I'd regard them as still a man, with all a man's capacity to create havoc - and therefore not a person I'd want to share my toilet space with, no matter how pleasant their manners actually were. In fact, I can't see any sensible and caring man attempting to do this - which argues that any man who wants to invade a female toilet is not sensible and caring.
And if a trans man pleads to come in, because they feel threatened in the men's loo? Logically, one must say no: they are men. But I couldn't be cruel. When you've got to go, you've got to go, and showing humanity to another person in distress is one of life's imperatives, I would say. Wouldn't you too?