Toilet Troubles and queer visions of peace for Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement promised an inclusive, equal society that protects and vindicates the human rights of all, but that is not the experience of LGBTQ people

Toilets have been a battleground for transgender rights – perhaps specifically evident in the backlash that was provoked against the Obama administration in 2016 over its efforts to extend the rights of transgender students; a backlash that has been certainly consolidated by Donald Trump. In the UK and Ireland, there has been an upsurge of new policies that advocate the advancement of gender identity and trans rights, committed to providing inclusive and welcoming environments, included gender-neutral toilets. Yet, public bathroom use continues to be a thorny issue for trans and LGBTQ people, especially in Northern Ireland.

Twenty years after the inclusive pledges of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – and backed up by Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – to promote “equality of opportunity between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation”, Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where LGBT couples cannot legally marry. It has recently been described as a place with a widespread “institutional anti-LGBT bias”, as attested by a report on LGBTQ students’ experience, released last year, which reveals that two-thirds of LGBTQ pupils do not feel welcomed in Northern Irish schools: and the use of toilets is, again, mentioned as one of the “most troublesome” issues for trans students.

Public bathrooms are ultimately liminal spaces between the public and the private: if the cubicle itself can offer safety and protection, the bathroom itself can be a vulnerable, if not dangerous zone: it’s been far too often a place of verbal and physical violence, harassment and bullying.

Toilets are, however, also spaces of cultural production – most notably in the form of graffiti. In both James Joyce’s Ulysses and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – to name just the most iconic examples – toilets are spaces of subversive countercultural criticism and production. Whereas Leopold Bloom uses Beaufoy’s “prize titbit” to wipe himself while thinking of inventing a story, Welsh’s Renton, emptying his guts in a bookmakers’ toilet, composes with a “vile bluebottle” a “work of art which gives \ [him] much pleasure tae look at”. In both cases, the production of art is related to the original meaning of aesthetics that connects it to the physicality of the body, and thus returns art to the material reality that these bodies inhabit and that engendered them.

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This idea underpins Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet, the 2017 production by Northern Ireland’s only LGBT theatre company, TheatreofplucK, led by artistic director Dr Niall Rea. In the play, four toilet cubicles engender the “coming out” of the stories of four LGBT bodies. The toilet is here not only a space for a countercultural critique of Northern Ireland’s peace politics, which have excluded LGBT people, but also a space from which to imagine alternative visions of Northern Ireland in the future.

The play is part of the PaCCs-funded project, LGBTQ Visions of Peace in a Society emerging from Conflict, led by Dr Fidelma Ashe (University of Ulster), with Dr Catherine Gander (NUI Maynooth) and myself (Queen’s University Belfast) as co-investigators. This project sought to redress the continued marginalisation of LGBTQ people in post-conflict Northern Ireland by providing discursive and artistic fora to express their stories. Co-written by Rea and Alice Malseed, Tactics for Time Travel is based on a series of theatre workshops with young LGBTQ people across Northern Ireland, from which the idea of setting the play in toilet cubicles also stems.

“This is all we wanted. But this is it collapsing,” exclaims the main character Alice, who ran away from her prom when she saw her exes together as a couple: the guy had previously abused her, while the mother of the girl threw her out of her house and their lives, after catching them in bed together as teenagers. Escaping to her first gay club, she now hides there in a cubicle, looking at the graffiti. She imagines a 6ft-tall, muscular guy in 1992 Northern Ireland, hiding in the toilet cubicle in his school. Worried but also hoping that he is being outed as gay by the graffiti in the toilet, Warren’s reflections engender the performance of his first sexual fantasies with “Stretch Armstrong”, which, in turn, encourage him to queer the homophobic and sexist graffiti, and create an artwork of his own.

The 1998 Agreement’s opening Declaration of Support looks to the past to navigate “a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning” (Paragraph 1):

The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all. (Paragraph 2)

In a similar manner, Tactics for Time Travel reflects on LGBTQ issues in the past, in order to envisage how the invoked “fresh start” could look like. Warren’s anxieties about his father, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, throwing him out of the home, is set pre-Agreement but give way to a vision of “an alternative Ulster in the future”. Transgender Holly/Jude dreams of being able to “present as any gender I want”, while being “able to use any toilet in school”. Refusing to let the seriousness of such issues turn the play into a polemic utopia for LGBTQ rights, the four characters’ hopes, fears and fantasies about the future engender two equally dystopian extremes.

On the one hand, we encounter a world based on binaries, where “you have to pick a side […]You can’t be on the fence here. You’re in Ulster for fuck sake”. This world demands the wearing of gender-specific clothing, including usually gender-neutral space suits. On the other hand, the audience is confronted with a vision of a world of radical equality, in which every sexual relation demands prior written, and notarised, consent (which eliminates any spontaneity), in which “extremes of femininity and masculinity will be policed”, and a legislation requires there to be a “50% balance of queer and non-queer bodies” in all public spaces. Meta-dramatical elements, such as interactions with the audience, remind us that this is, indeed, just a play that cannot offer any easy resolutions.

The stories emerging from these cubicles importantly give voice to the hopes, needs, and anxieties of LGBTQ people growing up in contemporary Northern Ireland. Yet, at the end of the play, all four characters are again withdrawn into the vulnerable safety of these enclosed and yet, through the Perspex doors, exposed private-public spaces: they raise their voices in unison to not only commemorate “all the people who still have to hide, to pretend” but also to celebrate queer difference, and to offer each other support, sympathy, and solidarity.

If this verbal accord resonates with the pledges of the agreement, LGBTQ voices remain here again notably confined to the margins. As long as this continues to be the case, the agreement has failed to live up to its promise of creating an inclusive and equal society that protects and vindicates the human rights of all.

Dr Stefanie Lehner is lecturer in Irish literature and culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice (QUB). She is author of Subaltern Ethics in Contemporary Scottish and Irish Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

This article forms part of #Agreement20, an academic public engagement project organised between the University of Salford and King’s College London, featuring a conference hosted by the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on April 6th and 7th, 2018