Misinformation patterns about gender neutral toilets

by Meryl Links

Fri Apr 15, 2022 (updated: Fri Apr 15, 2022 , 00:00 )· 1618 words · 9 min
A cartoon of a phone camera taking a photo of three doors. A cropping tool is being used to remove the door labelled 'women' from the frame. Image courtesy of @KatysCartoons on Twitter.
A cartoon of a phone camera taking a photo of three doors. A cropping tool is being used to remove the door labelled 'women' from the frame. Image courtesy of @KatysCartoons on Twitter.

How a story spreads

Toilets, bathrooms and changing rooms have been a central feature in anti-trans rhetoric for several years, mostly as a result of cisgender anti-trans activists dominating the conversation with anxieties about transgender people using these services. However, recently a pattern has emerged of complaining about the provision of gender neutral services. Verified accounts on twitter with large followings are sharing misleading or incomplete photographs suggesting that women's toilets and changing rooms are being removed and replaced with gender neutral services. We document some notable instances of this misinformation.

On April 12th, a Dublin-based account tweeted an image of two toilets at a Sinn Fein TD. The image showed two doors, one labelled "Gentleman" and the other labelled "Ladies" and "Gentleman". The tweet asks "Why is this ok?" as well as "Why are women’s spaces being invaded?". Both doors appear to be lockable from the inside, with sliding indicator plates on the front to show whether the door is locked from the inside, suggesting they are single use. Additionally, the door with both "ladies" and "gentleman" on it appears to have a steel handlebar, a furnishing typical of accessible facilities, which are often gender neutral so that anybody who needs to use them can do so without feeling pressured to go elsewhere. While the original poster of the image insisted that it was taken in a gym whith "10+ men grunting and taking over", this seems unlikely if there are single-use locks on the doors. At the time of writing this article, the location featured in the image is not known and so the provision of gender specific facilities on the site cannot be confirmed.

A day later, on April 13th, the image was reposted by the verified account of actress Amanda Abingdon. In her now deleted tweet, Abingdon captioned the image with "This is not okay". While the original account tweeted the photo to roughly 1,150 followers, through Abingdon, the image would have reached an audience of over 238,000 twitter users, hugely amplifying the reach of the image without having undergone any additional scrutiny. Abingdon's account is verified on twitter which has the effect of lending additional credibility to the narrative, further helping spread unconfirmed rumour and outrage.

The pattern of toilet fearmongering

The use of images to circulate unconfirmed stories and propagate anxiety and confusion is a pattern that occurs frequently in the anti-trans movement, especially around toilets.

Previously, in 2019, a twitter account called 'ScotlandCanDoIt' posted an image of a pair of toilet doors, one labelled "Male" and another labelled "gender neutral". The door labelled gender neutral is also clearly an accessible toilet and also a baby-changing area, with corresponding logos on the door. It is notable that the scene appears very similar to the image in this tweet; both doors appear to have single-use locks on them, and the gender neutral toilet is outfitted with a steel bar typical of accessible facilities, the only difference is the lack of clear accessibility signage in frame in the more recent image.

The same image was posted by the account previously although then deleted after being replied to with a video indicating that the women's toilets were directly behind the person taking the photo, with a video showing the exact scene from the photograph, then turning the camera around to show a door labelled "Female" (archive copy here although the video is not saved on the archive). The source of the original photograph is not known, but assuming it was taken by the owner of the twitter account, then the user is either mistaken about the lack of women's toilets, or is purposefully misrepresenting the situation. As an example of how these this misinformation spreads, we note that the same photo has appeared on a Spanish language twitter with the same accompanying narrative. The truth of the situation does not easily follow the spread of the misinformation.

The ScotlandCanDoIt twitter account has also shared another similar image several times. The image appears to be lifted from a 2018 'Woman's Place UK' article, although the source of the image before that is not known, nor is the image captioned or explained, appearing only to support the assertion that women's toilets are being replaced by gender neutral toilets where men's are not.

Earlier this month on April 8th, anti-trans campaigner Ann Sinnott uploaded her own version of this image appearing to show a door labelled "Ladies" toilets being pointed to as a Unisex whilst another sign indicated that the "Gents" are elsewhere. The signs on the wall are printed on paper whereas the sign on the door appears to be a wooden or steel plaque screwed to the door. Sinnott's caption merely reads "Is this fair?", providing no further explanation or context for the image, such as where the photo was taken, or whether it's a real situation she encountered as opposed to a hoax designed to provoke debate.

On March 26th, GB News presenter Inaya Folarin Iman tweeted an image from a pub in Belfast claiming that, while the men's toilet was separate, there was no separate toilet for women, only a gender neutral toilet. Twitter users were quick to point out that the narrative accompanying the photgraph was directly contradicted by the photograph itself, with the sign clearly stating "Gender specific toilets are available on every floor" (emphasis ours) in direct contradiction to the claim that there were no separate women's toilets in the building. Additionally, tweets from 2016 from the twitter account of the pub suggest that the women's toilets are located elsewhere in the building.

A zoomed in view of a sign directing customers towards toilets. The text reads: 'Gender specific toilets are available on every floor, please ask a staff member'
A zoomed in view of a sign directing customers towards toilets. The text reads: 'Gender specific toilets are available on every floor, please ask a staff member'

The tweet which was deleted, but only after going viral in anti-trans circles. In the time the tweet was still up, it was retweeted by George Galloway, who has over 417,000 followers, an order of magnitude more than Folarin.

Looking up the location of the bar on google maps returns an image of some women's toilets. The image shows a door labelled "Female" with a sign underneath reading "gender neutral bathrooms are available around the building". Taken in isolation, this image could be used to make the exact opposite claim - that men's toilets are being removed and only wome's toilets remain. Whether or not this image is from the same building, it neatly refutes the claim that women's toilets are being removed or replaced.

A door labelled 'Female'. A sign underneath the door reads: 'Please note gender neutral bathrooms are available around the building'
A door labelled 'Female'. A sign underneath the door reads: 'Please note gender neutral bathrooms are available around the building'

A thread created in 2021 on the website Mumsnet appears to show the same signpost from the same building, with the narrative being exactly the same; claims that the women's toilets are being replaced with gender neutral toilets, while the men's are left as is.

On March 24th, Conservative MP Lucy Allan tweeted that she had received a message relating to toilets at London's Barbican Centre. The message repeated by Allan reads

I was at the Barbican yesterday where there were male toilets, disabled toilets, and gender neutral toilets. I asked where were the female toilets as I am not gender neutral I am a woman and they laughed in my face. Women are being erased.”

In response to this message, the twitter account of the Barbican Centre replied

We try to be a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone. We have toilets for women, men, and gender neutral toilets, and toilets for people with disabilities.

In addition, the Chair of the Barbican Centre, Tom Sleigh, also corrected Allan on twitter directly stating that the sender of the message must have been mistaken as "the Barbican has and will always have women's toilets". Allan has over 30k followers on Twitter, and by uncritically repeating the story she helped spread the misinformation.

Conclusion

There is a repeating pattern of spreading misleading or outright false information regarding the provision of toilets. Large verified accounts on twitter belonging to journalists, celebrities and even politicians, are disseminating incomplete information or stories/images of dubious provenance to their followers. The proliferation of these narratives only serves to spread confusion and anxiety, which ultimately lead to feelings of resentment and anger amongst people who feel they are having something stolen from them. Whether it is an intentional tactic to radicalise the public against inclusive provisions for trans and gender nonconforming people, or that is simply a side effect of thoughtless and irresponsible participation in discussions that ought to be treated with more care than sowing outrage and feelings of recrimination - the public deserve better than misinformation and fearmongering.