My college, Somerville, was recently in the national press for our initial failure, and then (to use a favourite phrase!) U-turn on the matter of gender neutral toilets. So when I saw Gavin Grimm was speaking at the Union, I knew I had to go. Grimm made headlines in the US and beyond when he sued his school board in 2015, and later when his case was taken up to the Supreme Court after he was forbidden from using the male bathrooms at his school.
The summer before his sophomore year of high school and just before his 15th birthday, Gavin Grimm told his mother that he was a boy and did not identify with the gender he was assigned at birth. Listening to Grimm divulge his arduous fight to get a bathroom he could use at school is a clear indication of why the ‘world’s best university’ should be entirely on board with gender neutral toilets.
The day of Grimm’s 15th birthday was, he thought, the day his life would end. Faced with the reality that on his birthday he would not be allowed to be who he truly was and would be criticised for even trying, he was catatonic the night before. The morning offered no relief as once his mother sensed his mood, she told him ‘I knew you were determined to ruin this day for everybody’ – a day which was, he reminds us, his own birthday.
Every year, Grimm goes on, his parents would buy him and his twin brother a Walmart cake with their names on. This year, he hoped things would be ever so slightly different. However, despite having come out as a boy to his mother some time earlier, written on his cake in pink icing was the name he was given at birth. At this point, Grimm’s composure breaks down as he asks the audience of the Union’s Debating Chamber, through tears, why a simple ‘happy birthday’ could not have sufficed. At the time, he said, he decided that day was no longer his birthday.
A few minutes later, on what Grimm termed ‘the worst day of his life’, his mother called him downstairs again to look at the cake. Where his birth name had once been, now, in the oldest and stickiest green icing, was ‘Gavin’. When he came out as a boy, Grimm’s mother had insisted that she would choose his name. She had apparently failed to remember that the family also owned a turtle named Gavin. And so, Grimm smiled, this was the story of how he was named after a turtle.
It is so important to make sure that we listen to the voices of transgender people on matters such as this.
For me, Grimm’s emotional recollection of this story highlighted the importance of identity in the current debate over gender neutral toilets. Just as Grimm’s cake initially refused him his real identity on one day, his birthday, so do gendered toilets, which every day imply that sufficient provisions are not being made for the welfare of trans people. The students and parents who protested against Grimm’s basic human right to a toilet he could comfortably and safely use somehow likened him to a dog using a fire-hydrant. In failing to accommodate for our trans students most basic needs, we are, at the world’s best university, tacitly aligning ourselves with this warped way of thinking.
It is so important to make sure that we listen to the voices of transgender people on matters such as this. It is easy to claim that they could harass us when many of us do not even know anyone openly trans because, guess what, they may be too afraid to come out. The statistics on the harassment of trans students are harrowing to hear, but they take on greater meaning when you watch someone as strong and tireless as Gavin Grimm explain how, as a result of the ‘public discussion about his genitals’, he was asked to use a converted broom-cupboard at his school if he wanted to go to the toilet, the irony of which was not lost on him.
There is no evidence to support the claim that the presence of trans people using gender neutral toilets would lead to increased harassment
In the several weeks in which Grimm used the male bathroom at school, it became popular for students to (falsely) claim they had inappropriate interactions with him and to spread this around. Grimm claims none of them ever happened. When one considers the fact that in the UK, two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime because of their gender identity in 2017, a figure which increases to 53% of young trans people aged between 18-24, his own harassment doesn’t seem unlikely.
An issue that is raised whenever the matter of gender neutral toilets comes up is that of the potential for harassment by trans people, and particularly the loss of a safe space for women. So far, there is no evidence to support the claim that the presence of trans people using gender neutral toilets would lead to increased harassment. But, of course, many of us have used the female bathrooms as refuge from a slightly too persistent guy on a night out. One issue that should be acknowledged is that whilst this may be an occasional incident for women (though one time is one time too many), the absence of gender neutral toilets for a trans person means that they would face the uncomfortable prospect of not feeling safe in a bathroom however many times a day they had to use it. This issue takes on greater importance when we consider the lack of gender neutral toilets in a college where students eat, sleep, socialise and which they often do not leave over an entire day.
The fear about the harassment of women would be an entirely valid one if true, but in practice, it is unfounded. Perhaps security in said toilets could be improved, particularly in nightclubs. Alarms, security on the doors, and so on are practical measures that can be taken to attempt to dispel these fears. However, the reality is that transgender people have most likely been using the same toilets as you and me for years without us even realising. The sad truth is that women can be and are assaulted anywhere – trans people are not the problem.
What overwhelmingly comes to mind is that to not have gender neutral toilets is to assure the actual harassment of an already marginalised group of people, based upon unfounded fear of the potential harassment of another. Instead, what is needed is a change in attitudes entirely, alike that of Grimm’s mother who since became, he says, part of the reason he continued to live. The attitudes of society towards the trans community have contributed to 48% of young trans people in Britain having attempted suicide. With a simple change in bathroom signage, we could offer them the acceptance of their identity that they deserve. Furthermore, an acknowledgement of gender fluidity coupled with the greater acceptance of a typically marginalised group would in fact only aid the issue of women being harassed.
All colleges should have gender neutral bathrooms, and we must do everything we can to accommodate for the brilliant transgender students that we attract to the dreaming spires.
In taking post-speech questions, Grimm was asked what his message would be to other young trans people feeling oppressed and upset. He responded that to be diligent and tireless to their cause was the answer – that this was about more than just a bathroom, but about people’s worldview and having a human face in connection to this conversation. The fact of the matter is that to have trans people using the same bathrooms as cisgender people is a normalising experience which can only calm overblown and unfounded perceptions of the trans community. Such perceptions, in Grimm’s words, have been perpetuated in ‘a late-night TV show joke’ where there’s ‘a man in a dress with a beard’. This is not the kind of authority a great institution like our university should follow on such an important matter. All colleges should have gender neutral bathrooms, and we must do everything we can to accommodate for the brilliant transgender students that we attract to the dreaming spires.