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21 August 2023

On 18 August 2023, Channel News Asia reported that a photograph of a set of ‘gender neutral’ toilets at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre has provoked radically mixed reactions.

On one extreme end of the spectrum were people who were incensed by the very idea of gender-neutral toilets and the ideology that it represents.

For example, a user on an online forum called HardwareZone, who goes by the name of ‘dushensiao’, commented that Suntec was going ‘woke’. A Facebook user called ‘Siti Hannah’ wrote: ‘Apparently it is true. Are there any petitions for us to vote to take this down? Why is Singapore doing this? I fear for my children’s future.’

On the other extreme end of the spectrum, PinkDotSG predictably welcomed gender-neutral toilets commenting that:

LGBTQ+ people, particularly gender non-conforming individuals, may be subjected to verbal abuse, physical assault or other forms of discrimination in traditional gender-segregated toilets. A gender-neutral toilet signals that everyone is welcome to use the space and protects the safety and dignity of gender non-conforming individuals.

With the transgender revolution, the humble public toilet has become a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. The public toilet has become the locus of heightened social anxiety not only about issues pertaining to gender but also about safety. So intense is this debate that in 2016, TIME Magazine observed that bathrooms have become ‘battlegrounds in fights over civil rights.’

Celebrities such as Bryan Adams and companies such as Pepsi and PayPal have given their support to trans-friendly toilets. Thus, when North Carolina enacted a law in 2016 which requires transgender people to choose restroom according to their biological birth sex, these celebrities and companies responded by boycotting the state!

Transgender activists have long asserted that transgendered or non-binary persons are most at risk of suffering what they have called a ‘quiet violence’ when they are left with no choice but to use gendered toilets and other similar public spaces. These experiences of discrimination and threat are ‘quiet’ because they are not overt acts such as transphobic slurs or assault. Yet the ‘violence’ is real and trans people are always vulnerable to it when navigating public spaces.

In her article titled ‘Let Us Pee in Peace’ published in the Harvard Political Review, Syd Sanders provides some statistics to highlight the magnitude of the problem. According to Sanders, a landmark survey conducted by the National Centre for Transgender Equality found that 60 percent of transgender Americans have avoided using public toilets for fear of being the victims of discrimination or abuse.

This has allegedly resulted in several health concerns. According to Sanders, the survey showed that 32 percent of respondents reported ‘that they had restricted their water or food consumption to avoid needing to use a public restroom.’ Significantly, 8 percent of the respondents reported developing kidney infections as a result. (Sanders compares this to the less than 1 percent in the general population who had this condition each year.)

In addition, Sanders reported that the same 2016 survey revealed that 12 percent of transgender Americans ‘say they have been verbally harassed in a restroom, and two percent share that they have been physically assaulted in such a space.’ Sanders points to a study conducted by the Williams Institute which says that there are 1.4 million transgender Americans. This means that about 28,000 transgendered people have suffered abuse.

There can be no doubt that transgendered people have from time to time suffered abuse and discrimination when they use public spaces – even if the figures presented by the National Centre for Transgender Equality are not very convincing.

Be that as it may, whatever one makes of these statistics about abuse and trauma, the message that Sanders and others are trying to bring across to the rest of society is clear: gender-neutral toilets are necessary for the comfort, safety and protection of transgendered people. They will protect transgendered and non-binary people from discrimination and abuse.

But what about the safety of girls and women?

In September 2018, The Independent reported that ‘the vast majority of reported sexual assaults at public swimming pools in the UK take place in unisex changing rooms.’ The data suggests that ‘unisex changing rooms are more dangerous for women and girls than single-sex facilities.’ ‘Just under 90 per cent of complaints regarding changing room sexual assaults, voyeurism and harassment are about incidents in unisex facilities’, it adds.

Many transgender activists roundly deny that such danger exists insisting that there has been no credible research to support this claim. Some would go so far as to argue that this is nothing but paranoia and even transmisogyny on the part of women and girls. For example, in his article published on the website of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Jeff Jones reports how the Vassar Queer Health Initiative (VQHI) has belittled these concerns from women:

Cisgender women [biological females identifying as female] often claim uncomfortability [sic] in all-gender bathroom situations … VQHI attributes cisgender women’s fear of transwomen in bathrooms to transmisogyny and not actual dangers to their safety.

Another reason forwarded by transgender activists for gender-neutral toilets is that they promote inclusivity and equality. Transgender activists often present inclusivity as the forefront of their movement. They argue that with the provision of gender-neutral toilets, the city and its different establishments can ensure a welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of their gender identity and expression.

But one suspects that there’s much more to this than just the concern for inclusivity. Many establishments have provided sufficient unisex public toilets, which are standalone facilities. These toilets are very inclusive because they can be used by both genders and are specially designed for people with disabilities.

Transgender activists, however, are not satisfied with unisex toilets and have always insisted on gender-neutral toilets. This is arguably because of the latter’s potential symbolic power, their iconic nature.

Gender-neutral toilets can easily become a symbol of the transgender ideology. Their ubiquity in public spaces could serve as catalysts for the social change that transgender ideologues are trying to incite. Their presence throughout the city could be taken to signify the triumph of the movement.

In any case, the humble public toilet has willy-nilly become the battleground in this culture war. It has been used (some would say ‘weaponised’) by transgender activists to advance their agendas. Toilets have been transformed into political arenas: gendered-toilets are cast as the epitome of social segregation and discrimination, while gender-neutral toilets are hailed as the symbol of inclusivity and equality.

Although the rhetoric of safety and inclusivity is used routinely by transgender activists, the significance of gender-neutral toilets go beyond these concerns. Gender-neutral toilets have to do with the hegemonic control that these activists wish to exercise on the rest of society by pressuring the general population to acquiesce to their ideas about gender and gender identity.

Beneath the rhetoric lies a subversive ideology which does not only seek to deconstruct social conventions about human sexuality and gender. More significantly it seeks to challenge and overturn the very order which God has ordained when he created human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-31).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.