Talking about toilets in the GLAM sector and beyond

Talking about toilets in the GLAM sector and beyond may seem strange, so I thought I would write about it for this month’s GLAM blog club theme “Strange”.

We need to talk about toilets in the GLAM sector and beyond because, as Cottrell (2015) notes in the US, “according to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, 70% of transgender people surveyed say they’ve experienced discrimination in restrooms, including being stared at, ridiculed, told to leave, or not allowed to use the facilities. Some reported experiencing physical violence or having the police called”. I think you could say they are often treated as strange,  like they don’t belong, and despite this their safety and dignity is rarely considered in heated discussions (particularly in the US) about gender neutral toilets that usually seem to focus on ‘protecting’ other people from them instead. This is not okay. Whilst I am lucky in that I don’t think I have personally had any particularly bad experiences in public toilets, looking back, I think I have felt quite anxious about them since I was in primary school (perhaps at least partly because they forced me to identify with a binary gender -although I didn’t have the words to articulate this then) and relieved whenever I came across single stall or other all gender ones…unless they were disabled ones which also made me anxious as I didn’t feel I was allowed to use them.

Speaking of strange, I was up at 7.30am on Sunday earlier this month for my first IFLA LGBTQ SIG  meeting and one of my favourite parts of the meeting was when we started talking about all gender toilets and discovered that a few of us have been collecting photos of all gender toilet signs we have come across in GLAM institutions and beyond. Inspired by these discussions, I started an Instagram account (@allgenderglam) to share these photos (and collect more) to help trans and gender diverse folks know which GLAM institutions are (at least more likely to be) safer spaces to enjoy arts, culture, history and knowledge. I am hoping it will encourage more GLAMorous folks to advocate for all gender toilets to be part of their institutions too. It’s one small thing we can do to be more inclusive, but definitely not the only thing we need to do.

You can check out the account below and send photos and relevant metadata (GLAM name, location, year, event or exhibition if applicable) to me via this blog or on Twitter at @clareifications.

It includes an example of existing infrastructure being fitted with new all gender signage – e.g., “all gender with urinals” or “all gender with cubicles”, and this focus on the facilities rather than gender is probably my favourite and something I’ve been pleased  to see more and more, including at events hosted at MPOW although sadly not in the library yet. It also shows many examples of temporary DIY signs that have been put up for LGBTIQA+ exhibitions, events, and/or pride festivals, which is definitely a very good start and I encourage it, but also it kind of makes it look like the organisation only cares about trans and gender diverse people and wants to welcome them during these times – when really they should care about trans and gender diverse folks always, so I encourage everyone to advocate for more permanent changes to their toilet facilities or at least their toilet signs. I also suggest that all single stall toilets, including but not limited to disabled toilets, should be all gender ones, and adding all gender toilet facilities should be included in any major building refurbishment. I also encourage you to make sure sanitary disposal bins are in all bathrooms as some trans men and non-binary folks get periods too. If you can’t change signage like this or add all gender toilets another way, then perhaps you could create a poster or sign urging people to respect other people and let them use the bathroom without question like this one I came across on Twitter which is pretty good.

The IFLA LGBTQ SIG discussion also led me to this Stalled! online research project and resource that explores the historical and architectural “relationship between environmental design, the human body and social equity” and advocates for  “the need to create safe, sustainable and inclusive public restrooms for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion and disability”, which I highly recommend you explore.

More recently I came across ‘Things I Never Learned in Library School: Training Staff to Work with Transgender Teens’ by Karen Jensen which is a great example of critical reflection on librarian practice and offers some great tips and resources. In response to the rather frequently asked question we all get in libraries “where is the bathroom?”, she suggests that library staff should get into the habit of providing directions to all bathrooms rather than assuming they know or guessing someone’s gender and just giving directions to one bathroom accordingly. She also notes that that having an inclusive, non-gendered bathroom (sometimes called family bathrooms in the US in particular) is not just useful for transgender and gender diverse people but also useful for disabled adults and children who may need assistance in the bathroom, and encourages library staff to consider retrofitting bathrooms in their libraries to ensure they are inclusive.

I really liked this article and it was great to see the author critically reflect on her practice and privilege and realise the importance of sharing the lessons she had learned from trans and gender diverse young people:

“I am an older cisgender woman from a conservative Christian background who is just learning and I want to share what I am learning with others like myself. It’s vitally important that we talk with our staff about GLBTQ issues and customer service to make sure that every patron who walks into our library is afforded the same equity, respect and quality customer service.”

The responsibility and labour of advocating for all gender bathrooms and other inclusive initiatives should not fall on trans and gender diverse people alone, but it often seems to do so, so it’s great to see an ally actively listen to trans and gender diverse people, critically reflect on and start changing their practice, and then encourage others to do the same. More of this please.

Some other articles which include case studies of gender neutral/all gender/inclusive bathrooms are:

Pun, R., and Flash, K.S.. Nangle, D., and Hernandez Perez, J., 2017. Libraries and Gender Neutral / Inclusive Bathrooms: Case Studies on Promoting Information, Inclusivity and Access in Open Spaces. Paper presented at: IFLA WLIC 2017 – Wrocław, Poland – Libraries. Solidarity. Society. in Session 113 – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Users.

Marrall, R.M., 2015. Developing Best Practices for Serving Transgender Patrons at Academic Library Service Points. In Creating sustainable community: Conference proceedings, ACRL2015, March 25-28, Portland, Oregon (pp. 184-191). Association of College & Research Libraries Chicago, IL.

Cottrell, M., 2015, Libraries Create Gender-Neutral Bathrooms, American Libraries Magazine.

I believe I have shared NC is a no-go: bathrooms, libraries, and the limits of welcoming by Chris Bourg before, but thought I would share it again as it further illustrates how binary gendered bathrooms can be hostile spaces and how we need to go beyond being passively ‘welcoming’ and do more to promote equity and social justice and be actively inclusive. I really like these questions and suggestions that Chris closes the piece with and encourage everyone to think about them too:

“I hope you will ask yourselves and each other some hard questions. I have a few starter questions to suggest:

What needs to change at my institution to go from passively “welcoming” to actively inclusive?
How does my library enforce a gender binary?
How is our definition of “professionalism” classist, racist, heteronormative, etc.?
How might we better understand ways we fall short, as individuals and organizations?
What are we doing that is queer-affirming in my library?

And I have a few suggestions for queer affirming things you can do in your libraries:

Gender neutral bathrooms
Pronouns, preferred names
Queer-affirming content in ALL displays, libguides, etc. (not just in June)
Ally training
What else …?”

In case anyone is not yet convinced that we need to advocate for all gender bathrooms in GLAM institutions and for doing more to support trans and gender diverse people, then you must watch this ted talk by Ivan Coyote.

“There are a few things that all of us need. We all need air to breathe. We need clean water to drink. We need food to eat. We need shelter and love. You know. Love is great, too. And we all need a safe place to pee… As a trans person who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary, if I could change the world tomorrow to make it easier for me to navigate, the very first thing I would do is blink and create single stall, gender-neutral bathrooms in all public places.”

I have realised that I wrote quite a few essays related to toilets during my Arts degree, and now I find myself thinking, talking and writing quite a lot about them once again! It was also quite nice when a former library colleague from a regional campus moved to another part of the university and sent me a photo of a gender neutral toilet he’d found in his new building. I like my reputation. Now to keep advocating for more in the library!

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1 Response to Talking about toilets in the GLAM sector and beyond

  1. Pingback: Stop and ask why – Sally Turbitt

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