Trans toilet access still a struggle

Much like any of the young women at her college, Anouchka Smit entered one of the college’s toilet stalls. A few seconds later, two young men were peering over the top of the toilet door, mocking her while filming and taking pictures.

The reason for the invasion of her privacy? As a transgender woman, Smit is forced to use the campus’s male bathrooms, after complaints by “a few of the female students”.

“[The young men] wanted to make a video of me, of how I peed,” she says.

“I was scared. I was very scared. I felt very uncomfortable going into the boys’ bathrooms after that,” says the 19-year-old, who is studying office administration at a college in Caledon, in the Western Cape.

She adds: “You know, in the morning I often don’t have time to do makeup at home. I was doing my makeup in the mirror of the boys’ bathroom and one guy called me and told me to look at his penis. I carried on doing my makeup, with him standing behind me.

“He moved next to me and continued showing it to me. I felt very uncomfortable and threatened. Because, I mean, if they can do that, what else can’t they do to us? When Kim and I go to the bathroom, we always go together.”

Kim Fouldien is her close friend and is also a transgender woman. In 2017, the Mail & Guardian interviewed Fouldien for a report looking into the challenges faced by transgender people at primary and secondary schools. Then, Fouldien — already a student at the college — said she was happy the years of abuse she had suffered at school were finally over. “Dis baie nice [it’s very nice]. I can grow my hair and wear what I want. I can be me,” she said of the college.

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As to why she never mentioned at the time being forced to use the campus’s men’s bathrooms, Fouldien says: “It didn’t really bother me too much, then. Also, I feel like I have to speak out for other trans students who might come and study here.”

Released earlier this year, the report In Their Voices: Being (Trans) Gender Diverse at a South African University sheds light on the experiences of trans and gender-diverse people at seven local public institutions of higher learning. The report was put together by the Trans University Forum, a collective of trans and gender-diverse students, staff and workers.

The report found that many university bathrooms remain gendered in binary terms. Some trans and gender-diverse people “opted to rather wait until they get to their residences or homes in order to use the bathroom”.

“These self-imposed interventions are mechanisms intended to avert the impending violence of being a gender-nonconforming person making use of a gender-conforming bathroom,” it noted, adding: “Several students reflected on comments, looks and actions that they experience as violent and degrading whenever they make use of a bathroom in order to relieve themselves.”

A 2016 report by Josephine Cornell, Kopano Ratele and Shose Kessi looks into the obstacles queer people face at higher learning institutions. It says: “Globally, within dominant educational discourses, ideal students are still typically represented as white, middle-class, male, cisgender and heterosexual. Furthermore, students who occupy these categories tend to hold symbolic power within these institutions.”

As a result, students who fall outside these categories “question their belonging and experience a sense of alienation and exclusion”.

Students surveyed described instances of exclusion: “Particularly for transgender students, a form of symbolic violence or power they encountered daily was the paucity of gender-neutral bathrooms.”

One participant said: “A fundamental biological function becomes complicated and painful. These students are required to put great effort and thought into the simple act of urinating, often experiencing great trauma.”

Their experiences echo the findings of other studies, said the report, which indicates that transgender men and women, and gender-nonconforming people, are “frequently ridiculed, insulted, physically attacked and sometimes arrested when they use public bathrooms. Consequently, they are often forced to plan visits to the bathroom carefully.”

The Trans University Forum report adds that there are some examples of progress.

“Admirably, some universities have … attempted to create a sense of gender-neutral bathrooms. The University of the Free State, Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand] and, to a certain extent, Stellenbosch University, have changed many of their bathrooms previously demarcated as disability bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms,” it notes.

It adds that “none of the universities visited expressly created or changed able-bodied gendered bathrooms to gender-neutral bathrooms”.

One Wits student noted in the study: “Having gender-neutral bathrooms is a step forward. But I generally just don’t like the idea of gender-neutral toilets and disability toilets being the same thing, because I think there is a whole thing around disability still.

“And merging those ideas, I think, is very dangerous. But then also I feel like the bathrooms were created for people who physically [due to their disabilities] need those bathrooms. I even feel like I’m taking somebody’s space when I do use gender-neutral bathrooms.”

Another said: “If you live in a household with people of different genders, you are going to go to the same loo that your dad or your sister or your gran goes to. Ja, I use a gender-neutral facility when there is one close by — because the benefit is that they are cleaner — but otherwise then I go to a female one; I don’t give a damn any more. I really don’t.”

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Smit and Fouldien, and many others like them, do not have this luxury.

Says Smit: “All I want is to be respected for who and what I am and to be allowed to use the females’ bathroom.”

Fouldien adds: “Ons wil net veilig voel. In die kollege en in die toilette (We just want to feel safe. At college and in the toilets).”

After being approached by the M&G for comment, the campus principal met with Smit and Fouldien.

According to Fouldien, they were told they could make use of the women’s bathrooms once they commence hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and give the college a letter from a medical practitioner confirming they are transgender. Until then, they are to make use of the men’s staff bathroom. Both begin HRT in September.

Says Fouldien: “We’re happy with this, in a way. It’s fine for now. But if they don’t allow us to use the women’s bathrooms once we start hormone therapy, dan is ons nie gelukkig nie. We won’t be happy with that.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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