The Police Do Not Protect Us: Let LGBTQIA+ People Pee in Peace

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin reflects on the UK government's plans to introduce plainclothes officers in bars and clubs within the context of LGBTQIA+ history and highlights the need for a gender-inclusive toilet access toolkit produced by Good Night Out.

HEADER DESIGN Ivana Cavic

In response to the outcry around the murder of Sarah Everard, the UK Government has outlined steps to protect women and people of marginalised genders from sexual harassment and assault. Called ‘Project Vigilant’, this programme includes a proposal that plainclothes officers will attend bars and clubs at night to “identify predatory and suspicious offenders” and patrol nearby as people leave at closing time. These suggestions to incorporate an undercover police presence in social spaces rings especially ironic considering Sarah Everard was allegedly murdered by an officer of the Metropolitan Police Service. Moreover, they have the potential to create a hostile environment for queer and trans+ people in spaces that are supposed to enable freedom of expression.

The LGBTQIA+ community around the world has found solace in bars and clubs as spaces to escape the prying and judgemental eyes of society, even at times when our existence was erased and criminalised.

From the molly houses of the 18th century to Soho’s thriving Caravan Club, described by police in the 1930s as a “rendezvous for homosexual perverts”, to the extravagent parties in the 1980s held to counteract the collective trauma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic legislation Section 28, partying has always served as more than just a source of pleasure for the queer community – it’s been a form of resistance, of hope, and a refuge. American poet Allen Ginsberg even used to travel to India in the 1960s to attend big queer parties hosted by the local artists and activists, at a time when queer networks were submerged to avoid persecution.

Illustration © Blk Moody Boi 2021

Not only were clubs and bars a place for LGBTQIA+ individuals to gather and support one another, they were also a safe place for activists to plan and instigate actions. However, perhaps for this very reason, queer clubs have consistently been targeted by the police. In the 1950s and 60s, officers regularly patrolled LGBTQIA+ establishments, discouraging people from going inside, and carried out frequent raids – in 1958, just one bar in New Orleans was raided 78 times. Undercover cops would infiltrate bars and encourage punters to hit on them, which they would then use as an excuse to trigger a lewd conduct charge. Even the iconic Stonewall uprising in 1969 took place in response to a police raid that began in the early hours of 28 June at a gay bar in New York called the Stonewall Inn, serving as a catalyst for a new generation of queer political activism.

Within the context of historical and established queer resistance through partying, and the subsequent clashes with the police that sparked the LGBTQIA+ liberation movement, the suggestion that undercover police officers in bars and clubs would keep queer people safe is entirely preposterous. Not only would their presence be unwelcome in queer-centric spaces, with a disproprotionately negative impact on BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) members of the community due to deeply-ingrained systemic racism in the police force, it is unlikely that the police would provide adequate protection to queer individuals in non-queer bars and clubs if, and when, they do need help – especially in situations where trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and intersex people are harassed for using toilet facilities that align with their gender identity.

 I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to somehow prove my gender to strangers.

Rachel, a cis woman who identifies as butch

Under the Equality Act 2010, individuals are protected from discrimination for using the toilet that is most appropriate for their gender. However, countless people are still challenged, questioned, or even assaulted for this on a regular basis. 

“A group of guys got their phones out and started filming me in the gents at a pub once, crowding around and laughing, making comments about my body and asking if I was lost. I was terrified. It makes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, because I’ve had the same questions in women’s toilets too. It makes me super anxious about drinking while I’m out and about, and if you need help you can’t rely on staff to get it”, said M, a trans man based in London.

Illustration © Blk Moody Boi 2021

Galop’s 2020 Transphobia Report found that nearly two thirds of respondents felt unable to use the public toilet due to transphobia. Moreover, 1 in 4 respondents had experienced or been threatened with transphobic physical assault and 1 in 5 had experienced or been threatened with sexual assault. This almost vigilante policing of single-sex toilets not only negatively impacts trans+ individuals by infringing on their privacy, it also affects cis women who present in a more ‘masculine’ way, especially Black women who are less likely to fit into white Eurocentric ideals of womanhood.

Rachel, a cis woman who identifies as butch, shared, “As a woman who presents in a masculine way, using public toilets can feel like an everyday struggle. This has been made worse since the pandemic with face masks. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to somehow prove my gender to strangers. In spaces where I expect the crowd will be less understanding, I avoid women’s toilets and opt for the wheelchair accessible one (though that is not ideal). In venues with mixed toilets or signs, I just don’t have to worry about any of that. I can actually just pee in peace.”

Rather than supporting carceral solutions to gender-based violence – which only serve to inflict further violence on trans individuals – it is important for us to amplify and support the ongoing work by independent organisations to make venues safer for all.

Despite a number of international studies showing that gender inclusive toilets are actually safer for people of all genders, venues that have shifted to providing all-gendered facilities in recent years have faced backlash due to misinformation and an increase in transphobic rhetoric in the UK. This has been further legitimised by a technical review on toilet provision that was launched by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government on 31 October 2020, with leading wording that was criticised by a number of LGBTQIA+ community groups.

2 in 3

respondents felt unable to use the public toilet due to transphobia

1 in 4

respondents had experienced or been threatened with transphobic physical assault

1 in 5

respondents had experienced or been threatened with sexual assault

In order to combat this rise in bigotry, we must consider the experiences of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex individuals when engaging in conversations around gender-based violence and potential solutions, especially taking into account the needs of trans women, who are at a greater risk due to their intersectional identities and pervasive transmisogyny – 350 trans and gender-diverse people were reported as murdered globally between 1 October 2019 and 30 September 2020, with trans women accounting for 98% of these murders. Rather than supporting carceral solutions to gender-based violence – which only serve to inflict further violence on trans individuals – it is important for us to amplify and support the ongoing work by independent organisations to make venues safer for all.

One such organisation, Good Night Out, campaigns for safer nightlife through specialist training, policy support and an accreditation programme that “supports workers and organisations across the evening and night time economy to better understand, respond to and prevent gender-based violence.” According to their website, GNO has worked with and trained 185 nightlife spaces and 2,641 workers, including bartenders, students’ unions, security teams, and support services, among others. Now, they’ve partnered with Galop, UK’s LGBT+ anti-violence charity, to produce a new toolkit titled We All Need The Toilet! An All-gender access toolkit. According to GMO, this toolkit “offers a detailed guide for any business that provides toilets for visitors on how to comply with regulations while safely and sensitively ensuring facilities are gender-inclusive.”

© Good Night Out Campaign CIC 2021

“We think it’s important that all venues, regardless of who their average clientele is, are addressing the needs of trans people. I wanted to create something that was specific to nightlife and cut through all the misinformation out there – that was very clear and simple on why it makes both business sense and ethical sense to make spaces as accessible as possible for people of all genders”, explains Bryony Beynon, GNO’s Managing Director. “Trans people often end up in the firing line around this issue. As a cis person, running an organisation like this, I felt we needed to speak out and say that there’s no excuse for transphobia.”

Along with providing suggestions on signage, refitting and redesignating toilets in order to make them gender inclusive, and outlining relevant legal responsibilities, the toolkit also includes evidence from academic studies and research that debunk common myths, such as the argument that “all-gender toilets are unfair because they cause long queues” – gender-inclusive facilities have, in fact, been shown to provide the lowest combined wait time overall. It also  proposes practical considerations like providing bins for menstrual products in all stalls so that trans men who are menstruating can dispose of them discretely, as well as first-person testimonies from trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people who experience stress, harassment and even violence simply when trying to use public toilets.

Ultimately, venues that use this toolkit will only get more business, solidarity, and support from the community – because if we find somewhere that is a safe haven, we really spread the word.

Tabby Lamb
© Good Night Out Campaign CIC 2021

“There are few spaces where I feel safe – and that’s coming from a white middle-class trans person. Trans people of colour have access to even fewer spaces. That’s why it’s so great that, through this toolkit, venues can get accredited. We’ll be able to know in advance before going somewhere that it’s going to be safe,” shares writer and performer Tabby Lamb . “Usually, I have to walk into a building, look at the clientele, check the bathrooms – it takes a while, and sometimes that’s unsafe; but with the accreditation process, we can plan our nights out without having to have six different back up plans. Ultimately, venues that use this toolkit will only get more business, solidarity, and support from the community – because if we find somewhere that is a safe haven, we really spread the word.”

In highlighting a best practice of mixed facilities with cubicles containing hand basins, or individual toilet cubicles with a separate all-gender hand washing and drying area, this toolkit would, undoubtedly, contribute towards creating a safer environment for all as venues reopen post-lockdown.With the mainstream media continuing to legitimise transphobic fear-mongering and misconceptions around gender-inclusive toilets, and the UK government planning to exploit the current conversations around women’s safety to increase police powers through Project Vigilant and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we must remember that the police do not protect us, and instead engage with the work being carried out by grassroots and non-profit organisations to provide practical, community-led solutions to gender-based violence that draw upon the first-hand experiences of those who are most marginalised in society.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/she) is an Equality advocate and an LGBTIQA+ community organiser with the direct action group, Voices4 London, where they are a Member of the Board of Trustees. They are also on the Advisory Board for the social enterprise and sex-ed provider, Split Banana, who are helping redesign relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives and experiences of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. 

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