“Why Topshop’s gender-neutral changing rooms benefit us all”

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Following a complaint from a transgender customer, Topshop and Topman have reiterated a recent policy change stating that all of their store changing rooms are gender-neutral. Here, Juno Dawson explains why this is a step in the right direction – and one that will benefit us all.

I remember the first time I had to use a women’s changing room. Two and a half years ago, ahead of a Stonewall event, I decided I wanted to wear a Kate Moss-inspired look with pleather trousers. I did not own pleather trousers and nor did I desire to own a pair that gave me a saggy arse.

With this in mind, I knew I’d have to bite the bullet and try some on. I nervously wandered around H&M collecting several pairs of pleather trousers to sample. The time had come. I took my armful of garments towards the dressing room, absolutely terrified I’d cause a scene and be turned away.

You see, at the time I was mere months into my gender transition, and still, probably, ‘looked like a boy’ (whatever that means). Would I be laughed at? Would I be told to take female apparel to the men’s changing room? Would the staff there then laugh at me? I felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed.

With my head down, I asked, ‘Can I try these on please?’

‘Certainly. Three items?’ said the male member of staff working in the women’s changing room.

What? No drama? No mockery? No shaming? Nope. He just gave me the plastic token thing and directed me to a private booth in which I could change. This was probably because the shop assistant had been correctly trained and understood that under the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, transgender people have the right to change in the changing room which best fits their gender expression. Well done, him.

Juno Dawson

But this week, performance artist Travis Alabanza did experience the full horror of being publically shamed in a branch of Topshop in Manchester, prompting them, conversely, to highlight that actually all Topshop changing rooms are already gender-neutral. This, in turbulent tabloid waters for trans people, has sent some corners of the media into a frothing meltdown. Predictable, but true.

I was taught in Journalism 101 that you should always anticipate likely counterarguments, so I guess the issue that some people have is a concern that girls will now be exposed to potential danger if some spaces – changing rooms in this instance – become mixed.

Beyond a nebulous ‘icky feeling’, there’s not a lot of factuality behind this concern. For one thing, many stores on the high street have operated gender-neutral changing rooms for years: Urban Outfitters, All Saints, American Apparel for example. If vulnerable people have experienced harassment or assault in those stores, the evidence is hard to source. There is no proof to back up the ‘icky feeling’. There is certainly NO evidence to support the wildly offensive suggestion that transgender people pose any threat in public spaces. Furthermore, prior to my gender transition, in branches of TopShop or H&M I’ve been redirected to women’s changing rooms anyway because the men’s ones weren’t being staffed at those times. In the words of 2017, this is – you guessed it – Fake News.

If you’ve ever used an aeroplane toilet, you’re already schooled in using gender-neutral spaces. I see this as no different. You’re in a private (often locked) booth. If people are strutting around nude in changing rooms, I’ve never personally witnessed this bold naturism. Trans people are vulnerable to verbal and physical assault. Why, why on earth, would we risk our safety?

Of course, all women – including transgender women – are at risk of male violence and harassment. Just read any paper at the moment for examples. Assault, harassment and indecent exposure are criminal offences. Crimes, sadly, that happens irrespective of gender-neutral spaces. It’s awful. Traumatic. I recently experienced a man masturbating at me on a very quiet Bakerloo Line train and it was no laughing matter. But I told the station staff and it was dealt with. I was taken seriously and given support. I’m quite sure the same would be true if and when it’s happened in high street stores. At least, I hope so.

So who does the move towards gender-neutral spaces benefit? Yes, it does help remove some of the panic for trans and genderqueer people, but I’m dubious of headlines that say my community ‘demanded’ these changes. If I were you, I’d question all and any headlines about trans people this year. We’re a tabloid obsession.

I think there are broader benefits. Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall, wrote for the Huffington Post that she, as a ‘butch’ lesbian woman, is also challenged when using women’s toilets because she ‘looks like a man’. This is obviously terrible. I know a number of effeminate men also feel very vulnerable in all-male spaces so this might make their lives a bit nicer, too. Parents who have to leave their kids sat alone outside changing rooms? Solves that problem too. 

And just look at fashion right now: Gucci and Vivienne Westwood’s new collections are almost entirely gender-neutral. Where are you meant to try those garments on? Topshop’s women’s line is fun, colourful and playful. I can totally understand everyone would want to wear those items and not have to worry about taking ‘boys clothes’ or ‘girls clothes’ to the ‘wrong’ changing room. Clothes are bits of fabric, sewn together. They have no gender beyond what we, as a society, have assigned to them.

Topshop is a youth brand. Frankly, I’m too old for Topshop, but I can’t imagine the ‘calls’ for gender-segregated changing rooms are coming from young adults themselves. I’m very lucky in that, as a bestselling teen author, I spend a lot of time with young adults, and, when it comes to gender norms, they don’t really seem to care. Perhaps Topshop simply listened to the attitudes of its core customers. And perhaps that’s something anyone opposing such policies could learn from.

Juno Dawson is the best-selling author of The Gender Games and columnist at Attitude Magazine.

Images: Portrait of Juno by Alex Lake / iStock