What’s So Interesting About Toilets?

This is a guest post from Jenny Slater, Principal Investigator, and Charlotte Jones, Research Asssistant, on the Around the Toilet research project.

When the Sheffield Star reported on LaDIYfest’s big event in 2013, they overlooked the workshops on gender and anti-fascism, online misogyny, and sex worker solidarity, as well as the funds raised for the National Ugly Mugs; instead their main concern was with LaDIYfest’s ‘over’-fascination with toilets. In some ways they weren’t wrong, it was something the organisers had agonised over and discussed at length, trying to ensure the toilets were a safe(r), comfortable and accessible space for everyone attending the event – but of course this conversation was nothing to be ashamed about. With the limitations of the building’s infrastructure, they thought about what the toilets themselves contained (e.g. urinals, sanitary bins, handrails, mirrors) and how they were labelled. But even after all these discussions, they knew that unfortunately the changes made to the signs and the toilets’ contents weren’t going to work perfectly for everybody, that there might be other/better ways of doing things, and that signage is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues of accessibility.

Mention toilets, toilet practices, or indeed toilet politics and you’re bound to be met with a titter and a giggle (and not only when you speak to the journalists at the Sheffield Star!). Yet the topic becomes less funny or trivial when you’re in town, searching with a full bladder for a place for you or your five year-old to pee/poo and you notice the diminishing numbers of free toilets in public places. Government and council cut-backs mean that public toilets are getting shut down, and other places where we may choose to spend a penny, such as public libraries, are also facing closures. On top of this, for some, finding a suitable, accessible and safe toilet space is more difficult than for others. For those who are disabled and/or non-binary, for example, their bodies/identities are often excluded from these essential facilities.

A photo of the illustrations drawn by Sarah Smizz at the first Around the Toilet workshop.

Around the Toilet project

Around the Toilet is a research project which uses the arts to highlight the importance of having access to a safe toilet space. We’re exploring the relationships between toilets, identity and belonging – starting with the experiences of those for whom access to a toilet may be difficult (perhaps increasingly during a time of austerity). Funded by the Connected Communities strand of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), researchers from three universities (Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Leeds) are working with three community organisations in Manchester (Queer of the Unknown Arts Collective, Action for Trans* Health and Greater Manchester Coalition for Disabled People) to think particularly about experiences of toilets in relation to gender and disability.

Between now and September 2015 the team are running a series of workshops and events around toilets and access (find out more here). The first workshop took place on Saturday 30th May. We met with participants who identified as queer and/or trans* to share experiences of toilet use. Participants discussed problems of the gender binary reflected in ‘male’ or ‘female’ toilets. Stories were shared of being harassed or thrown out of venues when others made oppressive and violent assumptions around gender, and therefore presumed that participants were in the ‘wrong’ toilet. The need for gender neutral facilities was stressed.

We also thought about other anxieties around toilet use – worries about being overhead or walked in on when toilets don’t offer enough privacy (especially when in school). We discussed how perceptions of ‘normal’ are reflected in the built design of toilets: a lack of accessible toilets for disabled people reflecting the expectation of an ‘able’ body; and presumptions that only women will require baby changing facilities. We talked about who’s welcome in public toilets, and the closure of public toilets which is sometimes blamed upon homeless people, drug users and sex workers. We juxtaposed anxieties around queer sex in public toilets with the upper-class and heterosexual trend of the ‘mile high club’. It was stressed that removing toilet facilities doesn’t make these perceived ‘problems’ disappear. Although we started with what is often assumed to be mundane conversations of toilets, the topics covered highlighted a much broader range of social issues of inequality.

The engagement we’ve had through Twitter (check out @cctoilettalk and #cctoilettalk) has highlighted other issues around toilets and access. Disabled people are often entirely overlooked in toilet design, or only incorporated as wheelchair-users, despite the range of other access needs which should also be met. For example, the Changing Places campaign shows that the standard ‘accessible’ toilet for disabled people isn’t appropriate for thousands of people who require a hoist to use the toilet (you can find out where there is a Changing Places toilet near you, here). Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that The World of Accessible Toilets blog states that ‘one of the biggest restrictions in daily life, for disabled people, focuses around the toilet’.

A photo of a toilet sign indicating baby changing facilities, accessibility and a person which is half ‘man’/trousers, half ‘woman’/skirt. It says: ‘This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression’.

Please get involved in our project!

You can participate by joining our conversations on Twitter – follow us @cctoilettalk or tweet your toilet stories and pictures using #cctoilettalk. These conversations, as well as the discussion from the workshops, will turn into a brief which, between October and December 2015, will be handed over to a team of Master’s Architecture Students at Sheffield University. They’ll be creating a public installation which will ask others to think about what makes a safe and accessible toilet space. Keep an eye on our blog to find out more.

We’re also holding more participatory workshops soon which you’d be very welcome to attend. Details below.

Performance Workshop

Saturday 18th July 2015, 12pm – 4pm, Manchester Deaf Centre, Manchester

This free workshop, led by Queer of the Unknown, will be an informal investigation of toilets – our thoughts, ideas and experiences – through the medium of performance. If you live in or near Manchester, identify as trans*, queer and/or disabled, and you’d like to attend the workshop, please sign-up using our Eventbrite page, or get in touch with Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk). No prior experience of performance is required. Free lunch, tea and coffee will be provided on the day and funds are available to cover local travel costs and childcare. Workshop places are limited.

Making/Creating Workshop

Tuesday 11th August 2015, time TBC, Z-arts, Hulme, Manchester

Led by researchers on the Around the Toilet project, this free workshop will explore toilet politics whilst getting creative with art materials. Participants will make their own props and exhibits to use in toilet activism or to take home and put up on the wall. If you live in or near Manchester, identify as trans*, queer and/or disabled, and you’d like to attend the workshop, please sign-up using our Eventbrite page or get in touch with Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk). No prior artistic skills needed. Free lunch, tea and coffee will be provided on the day and funds are available to cover local travel costs and childcare. Workshop places are limited.

For further details about the workshops or for more information about the project, please contact Jenny Slater (j.slater@shu.ac.uk).

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