Last month, the Somerville College of the University of Oxford approved a motion to introduce gender neutral toilets in the college area. Signs that say ‘male’ and ‘female’ will be replaced with ‘gender neutral toilets with cubicles’ and ‘gender neutral toilets with urinals’. Long before this decision was made, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) had already set up its first unisex toilet in 2016. But does that mean a gender-friendly campus has been established?
Austin is searching for a toilet in Main Building in HKU. It has already taken her 10 minutes, but she is still unable to find any sign leading her to the correct direction. Finally, she sees the sign on the toilet door – the traditional symbol for male and female with a transgender figure in between, in the colours of the rainbow.
“Sir, is there anything I can help you with?” A staff member approaches and offers help actively. To her surprise, Austin keeps her head down, shakes her head and dashes out immediately without a word.
19-year-old Austin looks like any other year 1 student you can see in HKU, but she is actually a patient of gender dysphoria. “My given sex is male, but I realized that I wanna be a girl when I was just a primary 1 kid.” Looking at the beautiful sky on the bridge in the Centennial Garden of HKU, Austin tells her story in a husky voice. “Whenever I wanna answer the call of nature, I wonder which toilet I should choose, the male one or the female one.”
Having unpleasant experience of being turned away abruptly by frightened females with shouting and screaming when trying to enter a female toilet, Austin will now search the Internet to see if there is any all gender toilet or accessible toilet in her destination beforehand. If no, she will drink less water to avoid going to the toilet. So she was of utmost happiness when she heard that there was a unisex toilet in HKU when she got admitted to the school last August. “Finally I can have one more choice besides the accessible toilet.” Descripting her excitement at that time, Austin’s eyes are still glittering with hope.
However, Austin is disappointed to find that the unisex toilet she has long been longed for is highly inaccessible. It is located on the rooftop of Main Building, inside the office of Counselling and Person Enrichment unit (CoPE) of the Centre of Development and Resources for Students (CEDARS). Out of office hours, however, there is no access to the toilet. More importantly, only staff members and students who have sought help from CEDARS are allowed to use the toilet. For Austin, seeking help from the department will never be her choice. “Seeking help from CEDARS means that I need to tell some strangers my story, but I am not ready. It is my privacy and personal choice. All I need is simply being able to use the toilet no matter who I am whenever I want.” Austin has only told her close friends about her dysphoria. Not even her parents know the situation of their son.
Unfortunately, the problem does not simply lie with the location or the opening hours of the toilet – it is the problem of the policies carried out by the university. HKU still has a long way to go in making the campus a friendlier place for all genders. “Without more practical measures, the setting up of the unisex toilet is merely nothing more than a political gesture.” Said Siufung Law, a genderqueer advocate as well as a tutor of the Department of Comparative Literature in HKU.
Identifying as male, but having female as his sex of birth, Siufung usually uses the accessible toilets to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment, just like what Austin does. But he thinks it would be a better idea to turn all the toilets in HKU to be gender neutral toilets to cater to the need of the sexual minorities in the campus. But before that, education is needed. “To eliminate people’s misunderstanding and resistance towards gender neutral toilets, allocating more resources on education will be far more meaningful than building a unisex toilet, which is inadequate in number and inconvenient to use.” Last November, the Hong Kong University Students’ Union and Queer Straight Alliance organized the All Gender Toilet Experience Day, transforming some toilets in the campus to the all gender ones, and encouraged students and the general public to use the opposite sex’s toilet. Siufung regarded that as a successful campus education. “Students can experience what it is like to share a washroom with people of the opposite sex themselves, and they may find it not that unacceptable.” Apart from education targeted at students, staff training is another crucial point. “Some frontline workers’ daily job is highly related to the operation of unisex toilets, like security guards and sanitation workers. If they don’t possess enough knowledge of gender issues, they may find the idea of unisex toilet undesirable or even disgusting. Professional training is the key to ensuring the smooth operation of the all-gender toilets, if HKU is going to have more of them.”
But Austin is not optimistic about the idea raised by Siufung. “Some so-called “ethical groups” have already protested against the facility, accusing the university of promoting “unethical values”. If we are going to have more of them, what responses do we expect to receive from the general public? After all, our society is still way too conservative, and people are just unwilling to admit the fact that there are real people out there whose gender identity is different from theirs.”
CEDARS claims to be working on the promotion and establishment of more all-gender toilets inside the campus with student groups. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Education University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University have also set up their first unisex toilets. Can transgenders find their own toilets in all school campuses or even the entire city? We will wait and see.