Toilets: Inclusive, safe and universally designed

The graphic shows an illustration, which is captioned “Look before you pee!?!” It is borrowed from a cartoon series published in the January to July 1997 issue of ‘Naya Pravartak’, a queer journal published in the 1990s by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993-2002). The cartoon, done in an exaggerated style, shows a man using a urinal in a public toilet. The man is looking to his right towards a second man in the adjacent urinal. Distracted, the first man doesn’t realize that he has not been aiming right and has splashed on a third man to his left. The third man is aghast, but the first man remains oblivious. The cartoon also shows a little birdie sitting on a window ledge above the urinals and looking down with a puzzled expression, while the sun outside is peering in and having a good laugh at the comedy of errors inside the toilet. The cartoon artwork (done with black ink on paper) was by Ranjan, while the ideas thinktank behind the cartoons consisted of Navonil, Pawan, Peter, Rana, Shane and other members and friends of Counsel Club. The illustration is accompanied by a quote from the article text that says: “In this discussion on inclusive, safe and universally designed toilets, men, especially those with the privileges of money, heterosexuality, cisgender identity and absence of any major disability, can’t afford to be disinterested bystanders. Not only are many of them policy and decision makers charged with responsibility for greater good, but they can also get mugged in a toilet, heckled by other men stronger than them, or slip, fall and break a bone in a badly designed toilet. They could also be harbouring the pisser’s block from younger days, and as we know, retention of any kind (whether it’s urine or power without responsibility) is bad for health!”

Vartanama, Dec '17
To pee or not to pee – in a public toilet! Till this day any decision in this regard has sometimes to be taken even before I have left home. One of the key deciding factors is prior information on the likely availability of a toilet at the destination point, preferably one with cubicles or where the urinals have proper separators.

Never mind the usability – on that front my expectations have come down lower and lower in spite of a certain national cleanliness campaign doing the rounds – perhaps because I have learnt to step around more carefully and hold my breath longer and longer. But at least a semblance of privacy is of utmost importance.

Why in the world do some toilet designers imagine that every man is okay with exposure, sly sideways comparisons and exchanging notes on the stock market while urinating? Or that even if a gay man is interested in a fellow toilet user, he would want to begin the pick-up by staring at the other man’s penis?

Quote: Why in the world do some toilet designers imagine that every man is okay with exposure, sly sideways comparisons and exchanging notes on the stock market while urinating? Or that even if a gay man is interested in a fellow toilet user, he would want to begin the pick-up by staring at the other man’s penis?For me, the reasons to think twice before peeing in a public toilet may also be based around fear. This is true whether the toilet is in a cinema, railway station or park, or even if it is a use and pay street toilet. Occasionally, including on a couple of trips abroad, it has been the fear of getting mugged or assaulted at late hours when there are few people around. But quite often, irrespective of location, it is all about a block!

As it is, even if I think someone is watching, the flow stops like the corporation water supply. And if there is a queue of strangers behind me, then I might as well pack up and leave, or hang around outside the toilet at a suitable distance, waiting to dash in if and when the crowd thins.

Where did this ‘pisser’s block’ come from? I’m sure it is because of this species called the ‘toilet bully’. It has to be that immensely good looking senior in school who was also short tempered and always on a power trip with younger students. I still remember the unfortunate day when he was behind me in the toilet queue and my fears came true when I took that wee bit longer to finish up. One bang on the flimsy cubicle door and a growl from him, and it all ended in a droop and drip that had me a nervous wreck the rest of the day.

The need to carefully time a trip to the toilet never left me while in school and it carried on into most of the college years though nothing untoward ever really happened. Apart from the mental preparations I needed on what to say if anyone popped the question as to why I used a cubicle even for ‘number one’. The need to be on my guard hasn’t gone away entirely till date.

Public toilets in urban cruising areas for men interested in men offer yet another challenge. You can describe it with this tag line from a TV commercial – “Jaane kya dikh jaye!” (You never know what you might get to see). You walk in with the idea of relieving yourself, but might end up disturbing intimacies of various intensities. So if I know a certain toilet is popular for amorousness, I try and avoid using it.

Why bring up this toilet autobiography? Not really because of the recent film release Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Rather, the inspiration is the more crucial debates on construction and allocation of toilets for women, persons with disabilities, and transgender persons in public places, and also children in schools. The intrinsic link between access to toilets and access to education, employment, health services and larger socio-economic inclusion still doesn’t get the policy, budgetary and programmatic priority in India that it deserves. When it does, it leaves so much to be desired in terms of implementation quality and sustainability.

Recently, the most visible debate has been on addressing the long neglected sanitation concerns for transgender persons. The issue is as complex as the different ways in which transgender people identify – depending on a mix of factors like cultures, personal politics, gender transition status, and other motivations. Some identify as the ‘third gender’, Hijra or transsexual, others as ‘trans men’ and ‘trans women’, or even as ‘men’ and women’. Yet others think of themselves as genderqueer, gender fluid or agender – the list can be much longer.

Each of these identifications in turn influences the sanitation needs of transgender persons, and this includes what might sound like a rather mundane issue but is certainly not: Which toilet to access – the men’s, women’s or a third one? For many transgender persons a separate public toilet is clearly a must, but one of the issues that remain inconclusive is whether a separate toilet will serve the purpose for both trans women and trans men.

Quote: The intrinsic link between access to toilets and access to education, employment, health services and larger socio-economic inclusion still doesn’t get the policy, budgetary and programmatic priority in India that it deserves. When it does, it leaves so much to be desired in terms of implementation quality and sustainability.Equally important, even if there is one or more separate toilet for transgender persons, would all of them prefer it over the usual men’s and women’s toilets? After all, a separate toilet in itself cannot eliminate social stigma, discrimination and resultant violence against transgender persons – in fact, being seen to be using it may actually exacerbate the problem. In reverse, would all cisgender women and men be comfortable with trans women and trans men using the same toilet as them?

For many people, single use gender neutral toilets offer a way out of this maze of possibilities and conflicts. But how many such toilets can be constructed in a public place, and will this do away with concerns around privacy altogether? There are also the questions of toilet design. Just one example among many, post-operative transsexual women may need commodes designed differently for urination. At the same time, toilet design must take into account the needs of persons with disabilities. And even if this sounds a no-brainer, persons with disabilities may also be transgender or vice versa!

In this discussion on inclusive, safe and universally designed toilets, men, especially those with the privileges of money, heterosexuality, cisgender identity and absence of any major disability, can’t afford to be disinterested bystanders. Not only are many of them policy and decision makers charged with responsibility for greater good, but they can also get mugged in a toilet, heckled by other men stronger than them, or slip, fall and break a bone in a badly designed toilet. They could also be harbouring the pisser’s block from younger days, and as we know, retention of any kind (whether it’s urine or power without responsibility) is bad for health!

Beyond toilet availability and access, there is also the question of etiquette. More on the last mentioned another time. In the mean time, let us all raise a stink to demand toilets that welcome and truly relieve you.

About the main graphic: The illustration, captioned “Look before you pee!?!”, is borrowed from a cartoon series published in the January to July 1997 issue of Naya Pravartak, a queer journal published in the 1990s by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993-2002). The artwork (done with black ink on paper) was by Ranjan, while the ideas thinktank behind the cartoons consisted of Navonil, Pawan, Peter, Rana, Shane and other members and friends of Counsel Club.

Author Photo

Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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