How Public Toilets Became a Peculiarly British Battleground

A brief history of our loos, from their thorny conception to the fight for trans people to use them.
August 18, 2020, 11:02am
Public toilets
Photo: Tanja-Tiziana, Doublecrossed Photography via Getty

My entry into public space, and toilets, has been a choreographed routine around gendered signs, disdained glares and anxiety. As someone who is gender non-conforming, I am routinely harassed, questioned about my genitalia and kicked out of toilets. I’ve been spat on, followed and, against my will, had someone masturbating in front of me.

These are regular experiences of trans and gender non-conforming people, and it’s not getting any easier. Given that hate crime is increasing and the British press regularly vilifies trans people in the media, tensions are rising. The government’s plans for the Gender Recognition Act remain unclear, particularly as leaked documents suggest that initial plans to allow trans people to self-identify have been ditched and that “safeguards” will be put in place to protect single sex spaces.


This has sparked fears for trans and gender non-conforming people, as almost half of trans people report that they don’t feel comfortable using public toilets. Many fear the implementation of US-style bathroom laws that proliferate anti-trans hysteria.

But this is only the latest saga around the UK’s public toilets, which have always been a battleground.

According to Seb Choe, Project Manager at Stalled!, an initiative of academics, architects and experts that seeks alternatives to sex-segregated design, founded by architect Joel Sanders and trans historian Susan Stryker, says that restrooms as they’re designed today “don’t accommodate many different types of users”; including people who are breastfeeding, people that need to do pre-prayer washings, people that need changing tables or caregivers.

Part of Stalled!’s practice, Choe tells me, “is looking forward by looking back”. The history of toilets actually reveals that sex-segregated bathrooms are not universal, and not inevitable. Toilets have always been contested sites, exposing whatever cultural and social anxieties were around at the time.

When they were conceptualised during the 18th century, single-sex toilets were meant to indicate class and accentuate sexual differences. Sheila Cavanagh, professor at York University, Toronto, writes in Queering Bathrooms that “differences between genders were increasingly exaggerated by British and European public toilet facilities in ways that were class and culturally specific and driven by a heteronormative imperative”. This sought to project “proper” ideals of relations onto architectural space, accommodating Victorian ideals about privacy. By separating the sexes, no one would be exposed to others’ private parts (or what passed for private in those days), while also enforcing these very relations, naturalising toilets as sexed.


Following this, overcrowded metropolitan cities like London were facing a public health crisis over an ineffective sewage system. Victorian ideals collided with sanitary science in this effort to improve the conditions of the city. Toilets – a place for the masses to piss and defecate off of the streets – became an emblem of British pride, a symbolic mark of progress and innovation.

As women began to enter public space and the workforce, their place in the home began to unravel. Choe says that because “restrooms and factories were shown to be in such horrible conditions, there was a need to protect women, both from a moral perspective and safety perspective".

Subsequently, women became the first campaigners advocating for toilet provision – their own. The Ladies Sanitary Association, along with the Union of Women's Liberal and Radical Associations of the Metropolitan Counties, lobbied local governments for more public toilets (something still failing women today). These campaigns were often met with dispute, as architectural historian Barbara Penner examines in the Journal of Design History. Facilities for women, among being described as an “abomination” by the St Pancras Vestrymen (basically, men in the church’s leading body), were said to lower property value.

History reveals that toilet provision has consistently excluded people from the architecture of public space. Although we may think of toilets as natural, inevitable features of everyday life, they actively reinforce power relations. Barbara Penner, author of Bathroom, reminds us that “one of the first deaths of the American civil rights movement occurred when black activist Samuel Younge, Jr. tried to use a whites-only bathroom at a filling station in Alabama and was shot and killed by the attendant (who was subsequently cleared by an all-white jury).”

As I consider this history through the lens of my own experiences, it’s strikingly clear that public toilets still wield the power to decide who is allowed where. It wasn’t until 1970 when the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act was passed, that it was mandatory for people with disabilities to be able to access sanitary conveniences in public buildings. That was a vital turning point in altering attitudes surrounding people with disabilities.

Stalled! have played a significant part in changing these “codes” that dictate our public facilities. Through campaigning and lobbying with the National Center for Transgender Equality, Stalled! helped amend the International Plumbing Code to allow for all-gender restrooms. Before that point, the International Plumbing code stipulated that “separate facilities must be provided for each sex”. Or as Choe put it: the codes actually had the “gender binary baked into them”.


The year 2020 is, strangely, an important moment in the public toilet’s history. Only last year, a report found the unaddressed decline of and lack of public toilets under austerity to be a “threat to health, mobility and equality”. This is only exacerbating social inequities further, particularly for people with disabilities, the elderly and caregivers. But if the economy is to be boosted by people returning to public life, we need toilets.

That’s before you consider the pandemic itself. Just as London’s dangerous sewage system saw a redesign to alleviate public health concerns, Choe believes that COVID-19 means change is coming but “we can do better than just shutting down every other urinal”. We have to rethink bathrooms for everyone now, they say, not just for the mainstream user whose health is threatened by COVID.

Just by reimagining the simple public toilet, LGBTQ rights, environmental and social issues in the UK could be changed for the better. As fewer people populate public space now, I feel comfort knowing there are fewer people around to harass me. The fact I haven't been harassed for using a toilet in months because of COVID reminds me that I don't have to experience violence as a permanent condition of my being because of those public services.

Safe access to public space matters – not only so people can have liveable lives, but for cities to be at all liveable.