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The rights of transgender students to go to the toilet

Posted 31 Mar 2017 by Connie Benjamin, Andrés Hueso

This International Transgender Day of Visibility, Connie Benjamin (Policy Team Volunteer – Sanitation and Gender) and Andrés Hueso (Senior Policy Analyst – Sanitation) share how schools and universities across the world are trying to protect their transgender students’ rights to go to the toilet.

You might have read a month ago that the US president Donald Trump rescinded a federal law that protected the rights of transgender students to use the toilets that match their gender identity at school. This will affect the right of transgender students to go to the toilet without fear of physical or verbal harassment.

Today, for International Transgender Day of Visibility, we want to take a look at these problems and focus on more positive stories from schools and universities across the world that are responding to the challenges their transgender students face in going to the toilet.

Gendered toilets
Gendered toilets in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

What’s the big deal with toilets anyway?

The simple act of going to the toilet at school or university can be a traumatic experience for transgender students. When the institution prevents a student from using the toilet that matches their gender identity, the student’s gender identity itself is undermined. The psychological impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated. There are reports of transgender students being verbally and physically harassed by other students when using the toilets. Forcing students who may be questioning their identity or are non-binary (identify neither as male or female) to choose between two options that don’t represent them may lead to a sense of discomfort or dysphoria.

In response to these challenges students may avoid going to the toilet altogether, which may cause dehydration, inability to concentrate and urinary tract infections. In short, when schools do nothing to help transgender students access toilets they may be putting these students at physical risk and under psychological stress. Access to toilets and sanitation is a human right for everyone, and protecting these vulnerable students should be a concern for all of us.

What solutions have schools and universities found?

There are examples of how schools and universities have adapted their facilities.

Gender-neutral toilets: In early March three primary schools in Glasgow, UK, announced that they are installing gender-neutral toilets. Instead of boys’ toilets and girls’ toilets there will just be unisex toilets, for everyone to use, irrespective of gender. Glasgow city council says that this will not only help their transgender students, or students who are confused about which toilet they should use, but will also help reduce bullying, antisocial behaviour and costs. There is a growing trend in universities around the world to have gender-neutral toilets on campuses, for example in places as diverse as Malaysia and the USA. Campaigns for gender-neutral toilets in universities are very often led by students.

Third gender toilets: A secondary school in Thailand introduced ‘third gender toilets’, solely for the use of their transgender students, who were facing difficulties including physical and verbal harassment when using the male and female toilets. This measure has reportedly been popular with the transgender students.

Another approach, exemplified by the law recently rescinded in the USA, is to ensure that transgender students can access the toilets that match their gender identity.

Looking forward

There is a long way to go for the rights of transgender students to sanitation to be respected. The journey is not straightforward, and there will be drawbacks, as we have seen in the USA. However, at the state level this battle has continued, with signs this week that North Carolina will soon repeal its law requiring transgender students to use toilets matching their sex at birth. This is an important signal of the perspectives of individuals in the country, and advocates will work to ensure the federal government follows suit.

It must be acknowledged that clever toilet design and inclusive lawmaking alone won’t eliminate discrimination transgender students face at school and university. It is equally important to raise awareness of the issue, taking a holistic approach to making a positive difference to young people who face challenges in their place of learning.

As we have shown, there are many positive examples of schools, universities and students prepared to get creative to protect transgender students. We hope these will inspire others to follow suit.

Connie Benjamin is WaterAid’s Policy Team Volunteer – Sanitation and Gender and Andrés Hueso is Senior Policy Analyst for Sanitation. Andrés tweets as @andreshuesoWA

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