Victorian Council’s plan to de-sex toilets is just another example of women’s rights under attack

Victorian Council’s plan to de-sex toilets is just another example of women’s rights under attack

By Stephanie Bastiaan

Hobsons Bay Council is the latest municipality to implement woke Victorian government legislation at the expense of ratepayers and the safety of women and children as they embark on a multimillion-dollar plan to de-sex public toilets.

Under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, individuals can already access bathroom facilities aligned with their gender identity rather than sex which is problematic in itself (i.e. a man who self-identifies as a woman can use the female bathroom). This policy goes one step further, abolishing any semblance of dedicated female and male facilities and elevating the risk to women and girls who will be forced to share private bathroom spaces with all males.

Many people consider public toilets dirty, dingy facilities to be used in desperate circumstances with local Councils struggling to maintain them. 

In fact, community feedback shared in the Hobsons Bay Public Toilet Strategy document flagged concerns for safety, cleanliness and the need for male and female facilities as a priority to be addressed by Council; however, this feedback has been pushed aside to favour the feelings of a slim minority in the population.  

Sex-segregated public toilets provide privacy and dignity to both sexes. The move to de-sex public toilets does not impact transgender people or men particularly; however, it does affect women and children. For example, a man in the vicinity of a female bathroom would automatically raise concerns. The de-sexing of public toilets makes it more difficult to question nefarious characters loitering in and around these facilities. Public toilets are often a hub for drug use, sexual activity and poor hygiene. It is not uncommon for councils to provide needle disposal boxes in public toilets, and there’s no shortage of phone numbers written on the doors and walls offering sexual services. While a one size fits all approach to redesigning toilets may save the Council money, the danger risk increases exponentially for women when forced to share spaces with men. 

The silence - and in some cases, support - from trans rights activists on de-sexing private female spaces, casts doubt on whether their demand for access was ever about safety or rather about eroding women’s rights and privacy.

An investigation by the UK Times in 2018 using Freedom of Information Laws found that women are much safer in sex-segregated spaces, with 90% of sexual assaults in 2017-2018 taking place in unisex facilities. 

It is important to note that the risk does not come from men or the trans-community in general but from biologically male predators. Physiologically, a female is no match against a male once trapped within the confines of a small toilet block. 

Although the Hobsons Bay ‘draft’ proposal is still in the ’consultation phase’, some sex-segregated toilets have already been replaced with unisex bathrooms. 

These are not only single-sex cubicles but also toilet blocks. This newly opened toilet block on the Strand, Williamstown, is just one example of how little sex-based privacy there is. It’s also unsafe. The toilet doors and walls do not reach the ground, which is a significant privacy risk, and women and children are expected to use the shared sink and small space for any adjustments or personal maintenance.

Rate Payers Victoria Vice President Dean Hurlston says the Council isn’t interested in whether the community supports their strategy and is only looking for input on how to implement the proposal. 

“Why have they come up with a position before consulting the community?

“They’ve only consulted organisations pro the narrative,” he said. 

He’s not wrong. 

The Council claims to have engaged with various leading advocacy groups, including for women, children, the culturally and linguistically diverse and the LGBTI community; however, a closer look at the four organisations listed in the Public Toilet Strategy Background Report shows little diversity in their opinions on the matter. Zoe Belle Gender Collective and Transgender Victoria are government-funded trans rights activist organisations. The Multicultural Centre for Women and GenWest are organisations that supposedly advocate for women’s rights and equality. However, they are also trans-rights and gender ‘non-confirming’ allies. GenWest used to be called Women’s Health West but changed its name to be ‘more inclusive.’

Hobsons Bay Councillor Daria Kellandar has raised concerns about the glossing over of hygiene and maintenance and the need for more community consultation, especially with women, the growing Islamic community and multifaith networks. A growth corridor for migrant communities, there is concern that the de-sexing of toilets in Hobsons Bay means that many women in these groups will be unable to use them due to cultural reasons. 

In an address to Council, Ms Kellandar said:

“This draft policy seeks to investigate the removal of gender signage from toilets, and the policy notes the existence of potential concerns surrounding this from women, religious and culturally diverse community groups, that a lack of clarity on their perspectives remains, and that further engagement should be conducted. Broad consultation is important, so I’d be keen to hear specific feedback from these groups, including women, families, our growing Islamic community and our interfaith network.”

Ms Kellandar is one of the few women who has publically expressed her concerns. While other women on Council and in the community reportedly share her concerns, they are terrified of speaking out due to the public backlash from lobby groups and the media. Case in point  former Melton Councillor-turned-Victorian MP Moira Deeming has been publically vilified for her stance on sex-based rights, despite being elected to Council on a platform of championing women’s rights.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women make up 52% of the population in Hobsons Bay, while the Islamic community is currently at 5% and growing. Yet somehow, serious community engagement with demographics has fallen short so that less than 1.7% of the population in Australia that is gender non-conforming feels included. Once again, the common sense approach of maintaining male and female bathrooms while facilitating spaces for the trans community has not even been considered. 

As Mr Hurlston remarked, “the majority voice is being drowned out”. 

Consultation closes on 10 February 2023.

Stephanie Bastiaan is a Research Fellow with Women’s Forum Australia

**Sign the petition saying no to de-sexing public toilets in Hobsons Bay**

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