No Place to Pee – Gender Neutral Bathrooms in UK Law

So, did you know that in the UK, it’s actually – by law – very difficult for businesses to install unisex bathrooms?

Up until last week, I certainly didn’t.

As a non-binary person who doesn’t always pass as male or female, unisex bathrooms in public spaces are pretty high up on my list of Important Things. So, recently, I emailed one of my favourite local cafes to ask if they’d ever considered making their bathrooms gender neutral. This cafe has two single-stall bathrooms which are absolutely, 100% identical (I should know, I’ve used both), and for them, installing unisex bathrooms would be a simple question of taking the signs off the doors.

When one of the cafe’s managers replied to my question, he told me that when he had previously attempted to install unisex bathrooms, not only had he then had trouble getting a licence for the cafe, but the police had also raised objections and asked him to install CCTV.

I’d always assumed that the reason we have so few gender neutral bathrooms in the UK was just convention, and perhaps lack of awareness on the part of business-owners and politicians, rather than actual legal limitations, so this email seemed very strange to me. But after a few quick internet searches, I found out that UK law really does make it more difficult for businesses to install gender neutral toilets.

If a business wants to build unisex bathrooms, each bathroom basically – by  law – has to be located in a separate room, with full-height walls and doors. They must be for use by one person at a time, and have a door that can be locked from the inside. Thus, UK law makes unisex bathrooms less space-efficient, and more expensive to build, and as a result, businesses are far less likely to use them.

I’m sure these laws are some kind of old-fashioned, convoluted attempt to protect women, rather than an active effort to make things more difficult for trans people; I’ve even seen a couple of references in official documents to protecting people’s modesty, which seems absolutely laughable in the 21st century (I mean, god forbid that I, a person with a vagina, should ever have to suffer the humiliation of urinating within fifteen feet of someone who has a penis). But it is precisely this kind of government-sponsored backwardness that makes life more difficult for trans people.

I know that some people (many people, in fact) in the UK find the idea of unisex toilets uncomfortable. This insistence on separation of the genders is, I think, part of a wider cultural squeamishness and conservatism in the UK which makes things harder for everyone, trans or cis. It may be uncomfortable to challenge these values, but i would argue that it is necessary.

The cafe manager I emailed finished his response by saying “I think there is a lot of work still to be done here in the UK”.

I agree.

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20 years old. Genderqueer. British. Language student. Disgruntled customer service assistant. Also writing at


  1. March 6, 2015 at 3:54 am —

    Having read this, I assume that’s why disabled toilets (always unisex, no discomfort there) are always located in their own room. And as such, why there’s usually only one of them even in a vast building, and often none in small businesses like the cafe you were visiting. So the accessibility issue really is a massive one. (Obviously, disabled toilets do take up more space, but they don’t need to take up so much space, nor extra structure.)

    • March 8, 2015 at 3:58 pm —

      In general, the traditional rule has been that male nudity offended women and girls, and female nudity aroused men. And by ‘nudity’, I mean ‘views of the genitalia’. Obviously, this is highly heteronormative: With increased awareness of homosexuality, you start seeing dividers show up between urinals in men’s rooms, and between showers in men’s locker rooms.

  2. March 8, 2015 at 10:55 pm —

    In leafy lane suburbia across the U.S., you find community sports centers where there are locker rooms by sex/gender, and then a “Family Changing Area”, which always has a little explanatory tag under it, saying “Mothers with boys who have not yet reached age 6”. Which insults so many types of humans, none of whom are child molesters or kidnappers.

    • March 9, 2015 at 6:37 am —

      True that it’s insulting – in a lot of places with single stall bathrooms, the only difference between the male and female cubicles is that the female one is the one with baby-changing facilities. Because families where a man takes care of the children – you know, like the families of single fathers, families with two fathers, families with working mothers – just don’t exist.

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