Dear Ethel | Issue 9

Dear Ethel | Issue 9

It’s not that complicated

Dear Ethel,

Recently I went to a bathroom when a man entered, or at least I thought they were a man. When I told him they were in the wrong bathroom he said, I’m actually a woman, and then she continued to enter a stall. I don’t want to make this embarrassing mistake again but how I am supposed to tell when someone is in the right bathroom?

Confused Student

Dear Confused Student,

I read this great tip on the internet recently about your exact problem, it goes like this:

If you’re in a public bathroom and you think a stranger’s gender does not match the sign on the door, follow these steps:

Don’t worry about it, they know better than you. 

This issue of people being called out and even harassed when they enter public toilets is so common it has a name: ‘The bathroom problem’. This is where individuals are challenged in toilet spaces and their gender questioned or they are assumed to be men in women’s toilets or women in men’s toilets.

ALL people share a real human need for safe bathroom facilities when we go to work, school, and participate in public life. Gender segregated bathrooms are intended to provide safety, modesty, and security in these facilities. BUT ‘The bathroom problem’ can be a daily issue for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Many people would rather risk health problems by ‘holding on’ all day than risk experiencing discrimination or harassment. 

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Education and the Department of Labour all state that individuals should be able to use the facilities that match their gender identity. They all reinforce that this can be an important way to support a trans person’s sense of identity and wellbeing. For some people this will mean access to gender segregated toilets and others, access to a gender-neutral bathroom is best. 

Because there are very few gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, the University of Otago’s Disability Information and Support are happy for trans, gender non-conforming and gender diverse individuals to use the accessible bathrooms labelled as gender-neutral/unisex.

OUSA Queer Support is currently compiling a list of gender-neutral/unisex toilets to make available for students. If students have any questions or feedback feel free to contact Queer Support by emailing

Remember, trust that people know what toilet is right for them!


This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 12:00pm Sunday 1st May 2016 by Student Support.