A great deal of history has been written about the experiences of gay men and transwomen with public toilets. A lot of research has been done about transwomen and transmen with regards to access to and experiences in public toilets.
But what of lesbians and bisexual women in these spaces? What is the history of Spanish lesbians in public toilets?
Cultural life for lesbians starting from the late Franco period to the present has historically included a number of options, depending on where lesbians lived. These options included both more traditional lesbian bars and sporting activities, alongside women only social activities and gatherings in homes like quedada and tertulia.
Some public spaces in Spain, spaces where lesbian sexuality in theory could matter because they are shared by women who do not have same-sex attraction, have culturally excluded the existence of lesbians and bisexual women. These spaces included changing rooms and public toilets; lesbians existed in these spaces but acknowledgement of them and their sexuality was not allowed. Women ceased to have sexuality in these spaces, with only men retaining their sexuality in the context of women’s changing rooms and public toilets because of the threat their sexuality posed to all women.
Lesbian experiences in some public places stood in stark contrast to that of Spanish men; homosexual male culture had public places that existed, including car parks and public toilets, where men could cruise for potential sexual partners during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Even as some male homosexual public spaces were abandoned in favor of the Internet for meeting potential sexual partners, lesbians did not create or colonize online spaces for similar purposes.
Lesbian experiences in public toilets also stand in stark contrast to that of transwomen and transmen in Spain. Research has been done on experiences of perceived discrimination faced by these groups in spaces, finding that they are often uncomfortable if told to use the public facilities that align with their sex instead of with their gender identity. The research also finds that things like being challenged on which toilet they are using may impact tourism and holiday making decisions. There are also some GBT men’s histories that touch on transsexual women’s experiences with public toilets and urinals. No such comparable research or history exists in the Spanish language or about Spaniards regarding lesbian experiences in public toilets.
A tiny survey on Twitter with a limited response rate of nineteen women was done on Twitter that is not representative related to the issue of Spanish speaking lesbian and bisexual women’s experiences with discrimination based on sexual orientation in public toilets. It found around 78% of LB women have never experienced discrimination in public toilets because of their sexual orientation. Among the remaining, 10.5% said it was possible or maybe and the rest said yes.
The Spanish lesbian and bisexual women’s history and experiences with public toilets almost exclusively falls along one vector, and that is not associated with sexuality but with sex: Lesbian and bisexual women’s experiences with public toilets are defined by being women. When looking at broader research related to this issue that is about women more generally, this includes a lack of public toilet facilities making socializing harder, the potential for sexual assault in or when entering public toilets by men against them, dealing with the forced inclusion of male bodied people in public toilets either because they have been made unisex, because public toilets often cater to multiple populations including people with disabilities or father’s needing diaper changing facilities or transgender populations, problems with potential predators taking photos and videos in women’s public toilets, and lack of trust in the police and other authorities in dealing with potential discrimination and sexual violence in public toilets.
Lesbians and public baths
One area where lesbians’ experiences with public facilities have been written about include public baths. Most of this history though involves periods of time where public bathing was acceptable and Spanish society enforced strict sex segregation. Lesbians continued to be invisible though, so even while it is almost certain lesbians were in some of these places like Baños de Apolo, Diana and la Estrella, a few of public baths that existed along Málaga’s beach front in the 1910s that were strictly sex segregated, little documentation about that actually exists.
Thanks to the work of Catalan lesbians, more history is known about lesbian experiences with public baths in Barcelona. Early on in the Franco period, one of the places for lesbians to socialize in Barcelona were the Baños Orientales, which had originally opened in 1872 and were almost exclusively women only from their inception. Another popular place for lesbians to meet in the city was the La Cabana Cafe. They also created spaces close to Parallel and las Ramblas in Barcelona. These sorts of opportunities and public spaces allowed lesbians of this period to create their own social networks, which served to support each other economically and culturally and served as conduits for lesbian media and literature.
The Baños Orientales continued to be popular with lesbians, and all classes of women in the area during the 1950s. This period also saw the introduction, from France, of the bikini to the baths as wearing one elsewhere risked women being fined by the Guardia Civil.
Lesbians continued to use the Baños Orientales in the 1970s, where women now would often go topless, with the people running the baths turning a blind eye to this behavior. At the same time, women also often brought their children, including boys, to the baths with them.
The IV International Feminist Book Fair, with over 300 booksellers, was held in Atarazanas, Barcelona in 1990. The Baños Orientales had been closed earlier in the year, and in memory of their importance to feminist women and lesbians, “A Night of Mediterranean Music” took place where the Baños Orienteles used to be. The baths would continue in feminist and lesbian historical memory when they were mentioned at the 2013 exhibition Mujeres bajo sospecha. Memoria y sexualidad (1930-1980) at the Ateneo de Madrid organized by UNED sociology professor Raquel Osborne.
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