Toilets in China can be trouble. From slippery squat toilets to paying or praying for toilet paper, there are plenty of occasions where one might decide just to hold on until home.
For anyone whose appearance challenges gender norms, there is also a risk of being questioned or abused, regardless of whether they use the ladies’ or the men’s.
“I feel nervous every time I have to go to the toilet,” a Chinese transgender man quoted in a U.N.-led study published on Tuesday said. “When I’m in public venues like shopping malls, where I may need to queue to use the toilet, this issue can be terrifying.”
One NGO, Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, is aiming to address the problem. Earlier this week, on May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia — the institute launched a project encouraging businesses to create “gender-friendly toilets” that can be used by women, men, or anyone whose identity falls outside the male/female gender binary.
So far, more than 20 establishments in Beijing have signed up, including bars and cafes, the office of U.N. Women, and an international high school.
Venues that join the campaign receive a sign and certificate, as well as training and resources on gender issues. By the end of May, the institute will publish the first edition of an online map promoting these venues as businesses that embrace gender diversity.
Yang Gang, the project’s manager, says that as well as serving transgender people, gender-friendly toilets will address practical problems for short-haired girls, long-haired boys, and those who are accompanying and assisting their children, elderly parents, or disabled friends of a different gender.
Yang points out the idea isn’t as radical as it might seem. “Toilets don’t have to be gender-labeled,” he said. “We only have one toilet at home for everyone.”
In March 2016, the U.S. state of North Carolina signed into law a “bathroom bill” known as HB2, which demands everyone use only the gendered toilet corresponding to their “biological sex.” But even biological sex can be more complex than a male/female binary, as the reality of people with intersex variation proves.
In 2012, Chinese feminists attracted international attention for their “Occupy Men’s Toilets” protests aiming to draw attention to the inadequate ratio of men’s toilets to women’s toilets. Some derided the subject of the protests, while others said it pointed to important disparities in access to public space, as well as architecture and design that centered on men.
Wei Xiaogang, the NGO’s director and a longtime LGBT advocate, says his institute’s campaign has similar values in promoting gender equality, but ultimately it’s less about physical facilities than starting a conversation.
Wei says the project will get people thinking more deeply about gendered space. “Critics assume we want to make all toilets unisex, but actually that’s not our objective,” he said. “Our aim is to use gender-friendly toilets to get more people to recognize this idea of gender, and to create an affirming space for talking about these issues.”
“We’ve been too long in this binary, black-and-white way of thinking about gender,” he said.
(Header image: An ‘All Gender Toilet’ sign on a toilet door at a bar in Beijing, May 2016. Courtesy of Beijing Gender Health Education Institute.)