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The day we transformed all HKU bathrooms into gender neutral toilets

by an HKU student

“Hello, today is our special day and we are pleased to inform you these will be gender-neutral toilets just for today! So we invite you to use the opposite sex’s washroom and challenge your own perception of what constitutes gender.”

With a winning smile, dressed in pink, we have been “forcing” passers-by to do something out of the ordinary.

As students in the common core course Sexuality and Gender: Diversity and Society, we took part in a special learning activity which involved transforming all toilets on the Centennial Campus into all-gender washrooms.

all gender toilets hku

All gender toilets at HKU. Photo: CEDARS-CoPE Facebook page.

Designed by course leaders Dr. Brenda Alegre and Professor Timothy O’Leary, the activity was a small inclusion experiment in which students were encouraged to not conform to their biological sex and challenge social concepts on gender. In an attempt to let go of rules and conventions, we let our wildest wonders run free and liberated our gender-stereotyping mindset.

From my observation, girls were – on average – more willing to wander into the unknown. When we made known to them what we are trying to do, most took our advice without question and hurried into the men’s washroom.

See also: The ‘bathroom hurdle’: A transgender woman’s fight for legal recognition and safe spaces

Easygoing lads were hard to come by; nonetheless, we ran into one. When asked to try the “women’s washroom,” a guy was hesitant at first but still made the best split-second decision of his life. “Well, I don’t see why not. There are going to be just guys in there, right?”

To his surprise, inside it was de facto gender-neutral, but he still walked in embarrassedly. We were glad to see him come out looking pleased with himself. It is hard to come out of one’s comfort zone, especially when it comes to the touchy subject of gender.

But after first-hand experience, one may develop a new perception that maybe gender is not as clear-cut as imagined. The first step can be mesmerisingly mind-changing and easier than expected.

transgender featured

Out of the blue, we had unexpected drama in directing gender-neutral people. A butch-looking girl came looking for us after catching wind of our activity. However, one of our guy members mistakenly thought she was a he and encouraged her to go to the “female washroom.”

To our relief, she was not offended but responded with a brisk smile and walked straight into the “men’s washroom.”

This incident helped me to reflect on gender expression. We pinkies had a heated discussion on how we should tell gender based on observation. We fell into our own fallacy that all people conform to social expectations on gender and give emphasis to a definite judgement.

One of us said we are never sure we are right until we see the person’s genitalia. I raised the question: do we really know even after we see the assigned sex organs? Does having sex-determining genitalia really indicate our choice of gender?

Another girl chimed in, saying that even if we can see someone’s chromosome pairs, we still won’t know their gender identity. To sum up, we challenged our own presumptions on gender expression and gender identity.

HKU Centennial Campus

HKU Centennial campus. Photo: HKU.

Like many, one boy did not hide his scepticism towards our batch of pink weirdos.

“Are you trying to make fun of me? I’m a guy, I go to the men’s washroom!”

Without further ado, he hustled into the now gender-neutral “men’s washroom” and was taken aback at the sight of girls occupying the space. But having refused us irritably, he stood his ground and went in.

A moment later, he left the washroom in a huffed manner. This made me think: maybe not all people are open-minded to gender non-conformity or ready to challenge the conventional, expected behaviour of a given sex. While we try to forge ahead with our cause, we also need to be careful not to advance too quickly or aggressively, keeping in mind that people have the right to have a view and stick to it.

It deviates from our original aim if we try to impose our views, as all we wanted was to encourage more open-mindedness and acceptance of diversity.

Understandably, some students spotted us from a distance and diverged to the one remaining set of standard toilets, reluctant to join the fiasco. Some of the older staff followed suit. Bearing in mind my newly-learnt lesson, I refrained from trying to recruit them.

Nevertheless, I feel a little bit discouraged that social perception of gender behaviour is so deep-rooted in society. Although LBGTI inclusion is harvesting a higher degree of success, it seems a long shot to eventually change the mindset of everybody.

In conclusion, I learnt to challenge the social perception of gender behaviour and found it worthwhile. I hope more open-mindedness and inclusion of gender nonconformity will prevail in Hong Kong in the future.

The day we transformed all HKU bathrooms into gender neutral toilets