It is undoubtedly positive that Somerville JCR passed a motion to create gender-neutral toilets – what has been underwhelmingly less positive is the implementation of this motion by the college. The signs, depicting a man and a woman, fail to legitimise those transgender and nonbinary individual and demonstrate a deeply entrenched cisnormative and hetronormative ideology that continues to pervade society.
The lack of understanding amongst college officials about the signage on the gender-neutral toilets illustrates a complete misapprehension of the intentions of the motion, that sought to ‘include the excluded’. Instead, what the new signage has done is reinforce the notion of gender as a binary concept, delegitimising and ostracising those who don’t identify with either gender, and leaving them as excluded as they were before.
Indeed, as a consequence of being detachable, the signs offer the JCR motion little or no legitimacy – it is as though College is caught between seeking to appease the JCR and their fear to support the motion, despite it being democratically supported by its students. It is seemingly afraid that through adopting more permanent signage, it will lose the custom of those who rent rooms in college during the vacation. The college has decided, that between the additional revenue it gains from renting rooms and the needs of its students, it would rather alienate its students. This demonstrates a global consensus that extends beyond the confines of an individual college – that making money is more important than the needs of individuals within a community.
When the JCR motion was proposed there was some concern that the new toilets would make students feel uncomfortable, with the potential for a man and a woman to be in neighbouring cubicles.
This is an issue of socialisation: it is all we had known previously, and as such it appeared to be an issue. In reality, my friend from home who happened to be visiting me as the new gender-neutral toilets were implemented didn’t realise that he was entering the old ‘female’ toilets. And so it will be for the freshers that arrive hereafter. For them, a man and a woman using cubicles beside each other will be the norm.
One hopes that everyone will feel more comfortable discussing traditionally gendered issues, such as periods, increasing our understanding and ability to sympathise with one another. More importantly, it will mean that for those questioning their gender identity, they are more able to determine who they are, without fear of being marginalised as a consequence of socially constructed gendered signage.