I was asked by Sheffield Hallam’s Press Office to write a blog post about the Around the Toilets Project. Here are some thoughts so far (by Jenny Slater):
Mention toilets, toilet practices, or indeed toilet politics and you’re bound to be met with a titter and a giggle. Yet, the topic becomes less funny when you’re in town, searching with a full bladder for a place to pee (or a place for your five-year-old to pee), as you notice the diminishing numbers of free toilets in public places. Government and council cut-backs mean that public toilets are being shut, whilst other public places where we may choose to spend a penny, such as 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.
Around the Toilet is a research project which uses the arts to highlight the importance of having access to a safe toilet space. Furthermore, we are 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 (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 is welcome in public toilets, and the closure of public toilets due to use by 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.
Furthermore, engagement through Twitter (check out @cctoilettalk and #cctoilettalk) has highlighted other issues around toilets and access. For example, the blog toiletaccess.wordpress.com states that “one of the biggest restrictions in daily life, for disabled people, focuses around the toilet”. 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). The Period Positive team also got in touch and we joined them at their event for Menstrual Hygiene Day – decorating the toilets and asking guests to get involved by responding to our toilet questions. One delegate, a sex educator, explained that many young they speak to at school still believe that you can catch HIV/Aids from a toilet seat – highlighting that there is much work still to be done!
The stories from our first workshops were drawn ‘live’ by graphic artist Sarah Smizz. They’ll be displayed and available as postcards at future events. Our next event, Toilet Talks: A speaker event on bodies, identities and design, is free and open to the public. You can sign up to come along via the Eventbrite page. Speakers will be discussing:
– What makes an accessible toilet?
– What can toilets tell us about social constructions of gender identity and disability?
– How have designers approached this most private of public spaces?
– What do the hidden histories of toilets in the city reveal?
You can also get involved by joining the conversations on Twitter – follow us @cctoilettalk or Tweet your toilet stories and pictures using #cctoilettalk. We’ll be holding another participatory workshop event in July – this time run by Queer of the Unknown, using performance as a method of exploring toilets. If you’re interested in attending the workshop, please get in touch with us (contact details here). All of these conversations will turn into a brief which, between October and December 2015, will be handed over to a team of Masters Architecture Students at Sheffield University to create a public installation, asking others to think about what makes a safe and accessible toilet space? Keep an eye on our blog to find out more.
 The term queer is used deliberately and transgressively as an umbrella term to recognise those who are not heterosexual or cisgender (identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth). It is used in this particular instance as it is the term used by the participating organisation, Queer of the Unknown.
 Trans (without an asterisk) may refer to trans men or trans women. I use trans* (with an asterisk) to refer to all people who do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, including those who may not identify as trans men or trans women (e.g. genderqueer people, non-binary people, and so on).