Demystifying gender neutral facilities at schools

Published May 2, 2023


Juliana Davids and Ling Sheperd

The past few months have seen a misinformed and disinformed panic about “unisex” toilets in South African Schools. This article will explain the Guidelines for the Socio-Educational Inclusion of Diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression, and Sex Characteristics in Schools. Specifically in relation to Section 7.12, on Bathrooms and Change Facilities.

The word “Unisex”

Unisex is an outdated term – gender neutral is the correct term. The term unisex is limiting to the binary system of sex characteristics and the gender binary, meaning two (male or female), while gender neutral are inclusive of all gender identities that fall outside of the gender binary, regardless of their sex characteristics (male, female, or intersex).

Instead, gender inclusive/neutral bathrooms would be inclusive based on one’s gender identity, which include the binary (man/woman) but also gender non-binary individuals, transgender persons, genderfluid, genderless among others. The use of gender neutral means that it is not purely based on sex characteristics, but on one’s gender identity because one’s sex characteristics do not automatically determine one’s gender identity.

There is a continuum and an array of gender identities, which makes it difficult to assign established structures like toilets to one specific gender, hence the need for gender expansive facilities, which would not require one to identify one’s gender, but these would become inclusive regardless of one’s gender.

In the same way that toilets can just be called toilets, and changing rooms can be called changing rooms. In this way no one has to be forced to identify their gender and face discrimination.

What are the guidelines?

The guidelines were developed to assist school administrators, leaders and educators with developing and implementing strategies for a safe, equitable and socially just learning environments for all learners, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics.

The guidelines are a practical approach with tools to widen inclusive schooling environments, that aligns with the existing laws within the South African Constitution, (Bill of Rights in the RSA Constitution 1996, the Children’s Act) among others, that affirm and protect diverse learners.

The guidelines aim to ensure that schools are addressing and eliminating ongoing discrimination, harassment and victimisation. This solely serves to advance equality in outcomes for ALL learners.

What the guidelines are not

The guidelines DO NOT direct schools to replace all single sex bathrooms and change facilities with so-called “unisex” ones.

They DO encourage schools to make gender-neutral facilities available to gender non-conforming learners.

Section 7.12 of the guidelines states:

When determining which toilets and change rooms a learner will use, the school should discuss this with the student/parent/caregiver.

Schools should provide non-gender specific toilets and change rooms with individual stalls or cubicles that can provide privacy for ALL users.

The key factor here and nuance that is missing in many reports and opinion pieces is that these guidelines apply to ALL LEARNERS’ safety, dignity and privacy.

No learner will be required to use a single-user facility because they identify with a non-heteronormative sexual orientation, are transgender or are gender nonconforming.

Facilities should be labelled sensitively and appropriately.

The guidelines are for ALL LEARNERS

Schools should form policies for their toilets and changing rooms that accommodate everyone. Learners must be allowed to self-identify and be able to access the toilet or changing room of their choice, per the school’s policy.

Schools should incorporate training for the school body on its policies to avoid discrimination or harmful behaviour. All learners who fall victim to bullying, schools should increase adult supervision around these facilities and other areas at the school that are hot spots for these types of behaviours.

WATCH: Triangle Project Young LGBTQI+ Thought Leaders

The Guidelines clearly seek to ADVISE and GUIDE schools in necessary policy development, at the heart of which is consultation with parents and learners.

Creating inclusive learning environments like policies on bathroom facilities is only one of the ways that we can provide a safe learning environment for LGBTIQ learners.

It will also ensure that LGBTIQ youth can concentrate on their academics, rather than worry about their safety if they need to use the bathroom during the day.

“We encourage everyone to apply their own minds to the document, and not to be misled by deliberate campaigns of disinformation, which exploit parents’ fears and manufacture panic with false claims about what the guidelines are, and what they seek to achieve.”

The above quote, is one example of the numerous calls submitted by human rights organisations who promote the rights and wellbeing of gender expansive, diverse sexual orientation and sex characteristics individuals. There are countless submissions and inputs to the various pieces of legislation that are taking place that can be read here.

We urge the public to support the rights of ALL LEARNERS to dignity, safety and bodily autonomy regardless of their gender identity, sexual characteristics, or sexuality.

The guidelines do not infringe on “certain constitutional rights,” with reference to “parental rights” and freedom of expression. Section 28 of the Constitution, includes the principle that the best interest of the child shall be of paramount importance. Research shows that LGBTIQ+ learners are disproportionately affected by violence and discrimination in schools every day at the hands of their peers and educators. Suicide rates among LGTBIQ+ learners is staggering, and we urgently need protective measures to address ongoing bullying and harassment.

No one has suggested that “boys and girls share toilets” and we urge members of the public to consider the consequences of spreading such disinformation. Creating misinformed panic over toilets and undermining work aimed at saving the lives of LGBTIQ+ children is dangerous, and a distraction.

We believe in substantive equality – equality in outcomes – as enshrined in the South African Constitution. Substantive equality demands that LGBTIQ learners and heterosexual and cisgender learners must be able to coexist in school environments and have access to the same facilities, including the bathroom of their choice.

Asserting and affirming the dignity of any marginalised and minority group never has and never will take away the rights of the majority. LGBTIQ+ rights are human rights.

* Juliana Davids is the Schools Project Co-ordinator at Triangle Project, and Ling Sheperd is the Communications Co-ordinator at Triangle Project.

* Triangle Project is a non-profit human rights organisation offering professional services to ensure the full realisation of constitutional and human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons, their partners and families.

* Triangle Project (021) 422 0255 | [email protected] | Helpline (021) 712 6699 between 1pm-9pm, 7 days a week.

* The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.