Trevor Laffan: The time I shared a toilet with a formidable Russian woman

In his weekly column Trevor Laffan recalls his experiences with uni-sex toilets
Trevor Laffan: The time I shared a toilet with a formidable Russian woman

Unisex toilets have been in the news lately, but Trevor Laffan had his own experience of sharing a loo in Belarus. Picture: Stock

UNISEX toilets are back on the agenda, after the Department of Education released new guidance on the use of gender-neutral toilets for newly-built schools.

Schools will be given the option to include self-contained cubicles with their own doors and communal access to sinks, but there has been a mixed reaction to the proposal.

LGBT groups say transgender children and young people can feel uncomfortable using school toilets, as they worry about being bullied or being forced to use a toilet that doesn’t fit with their identity.

Parents opposed to gender-neutral toilets say their children will feel just as uncomfortable going into unisex toilets.

I have some experience in this matter, so I could offer advice in terms of design. I’m available for consultation and prepared to help in any way I can.

I gained this valuable experience during my days working for Chernobyl charities, when I spent a considerable amount of time in Belarus. We dealt with communities in rural areas back then and many of those villages suffered from poverty. They had very little, and sanitation was a problem everywhere. In many cases, toilets consisted of just a hole in the ground.

I remember one primary school we visited had a shed in the garden, which all the children used as the toilet. It was raised a few feet off the ground and located next to a little playground. It had a timber floor with a series of holes cut into it. There were no toilet bowls, so the waste went through the holes in the floor directly onto the ground beneath the shed and was cleared away by men with shovels. Not the most hygienic set up.

I was in another unisex toilet in that part of the world that wasn’t any better. It was a similar timber structure with a few squares cut out of the floor and there was a pit about ten feet beneath it. The smell was so bad, it was difficult to breathe. Getting in and out as fast as possible was the order of the day.

Anyway, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see the ground moving under me and I thought that maybe the waste was being carried away by a stream or something, until I realised the ground was completely covered with rats.

But my most interesting experience of unisex toilets came very unexpectedly.

I can’t for the life of me remember where exactly in Belarus we were, but I went to use the toilet and found a series of toilet bowls all lined up in a row. Each bowl was separated from the next by a low wall with no door.

It was for all the world like they started building cubicles but gave up after getting to the height of about four concrete blocks and decided they had done enough.

I had the place to myself, so it didn’t bother me. 

When I sat on the bowl, I could easily see over the wall next to me so I was thinking that, if the place got busy, things could get really awkward in there and I had no idea what the protocol was.

What do you do if someone sits next to you? It’s hardly appropriate to reach over and shake hands or start a conversation.

As it happened, I didn’t have too much time to reflect on these issues because the door opened, and a babushka walked in. She marched past and perched herself in a cubicle a few down from me.

For those of you who don’t know, a babushka is a typical Russian grandmother, and they usually wear a scarf, an apron and several long skirts. They are tough, capable women who have lived through tough times and know how to look after themselves — formidable characters.

So anyway, in she comes and takes her place without batting an eyelid. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I went into a state of panic and suddenly became very conscious of my bodily functions.

I thought I had managed to stray into the ladies’ loo and was fearful of the consequences. If any of the lads had spotted my blunder, I would never hear the end of it, but right now, I had a more serious concern; how was I going to get out of there with my dignity intact?

I weighed up my options. I thought about staying there and waiting her out, but then if she didn’t leave before me, I could end up surrounded by more of them. With my luck, it would be time for a tea break, and I’d be caught in the middle of rush hour loo traffic.

Time was of the essence in this case, so I bit the bullet and left as discretely as you can, in that kind of situation.

On the way out, I met a local guy coming in, which meant either the babushka was in the wrong place or I was. As it happened, we were both right because, much to my relief, it was a communal toilet. The babushka knew what she was doing.

So, based on my experience, I have some suggestions for the Department of Education that should be included in their recommendations.

Firstly, they should insist that toilet bowls are provided in every cubicle and the use of open holes in the toilet floor should not be considered. Squatting over a hole in the ground with a drop of ten feet below is risky and could result in the loss of some children.

They should also insist that cubicles are completed to an appropriate standard. Walls should be above waist height at least, to eliminate the need for conversation between neighbours, and every cubicle should be fitted with a door. Running water would be handy too.

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