Politically correct students flush free thought down bog
I must admit that when I heard about the campaign for gender neutral toilets at Queen's University I thought it had to be a joke. The kind of acerbic satire we're crying out for in Northern Ireland, where the scope for taking the mickey out of self-righteous fools, despots, zealots and joyless puritans - of both the secular and the religious sort - is almost limitless.
I'll admit, too, that even when I read the missive from the Students' Union (SU) describing its plan to make at least some of its bathroom facilities unisex - or should that be omni-sex - in order to "dismantle gender norms", I was still convinced it had to be a parody.
But, sadly, no. 'Bogs for All' is the name of the campaign, and it appears to be the inspired notion of a young man called Oisin Hassan, the student officer responsible for equality and diversity. Last week, he proudly reported, the SU put up its first 'gender neutral' sign on a toilet door, replacing a disability symbol on the single-occupancy toilet. This is to help transgender students, who may feel uncomfortable using the regular loos, as well as gay men and lesbians who "often face bullying, harassment and physical violence in toilets".
But that's only the start. Oisin's plans to revolutionise the bogs also includes the repainting of the men's toilets, which of course are blue, and the women's, which are - also unsurprisingly - painted a delicate shade of pink. "A perfect example of gender normativity," Oisin declared.
Look, despite my facetious tone, I have no problem with Queen's SU - and indeed the campus as a whole - having a few gender neutral toilets sprinkled around the place. If it makes life easier for the small number of students or staff who consider themselves transgender, or anyone else, then by all means bring it on. Pee freely when and where you like (within reason). What I do have a problem with, however, is the preachy tone and the lack of radical vision.
These are students, for goodness sake. They should be fired up with boundless dreams and visions, drunk on new intellectual and personal freedoms, challenging the limits of what is sayable and doable. Instead they're fussing around changing signs on toilet doors and telling everyone to check their gender privilege.
In fairness to Queen's student leaders, they are not alone. Universities across the UK and Ireland seem to be packed with prissy little puritans and wannabe dictators, aggressively championing fashionable causes and determined to howl down and stamp out any ideas that diverge one iota from their own rigidly-held views. With dreadful irony, this is often achieved by forcibly invoking the concept of 'safe spaces' where students' cute little baby ears never have to encounter uncomfortable notions that might challenge their own.
At the London School of Economics a free speech society that campaigns against the banning of student groups could now be banned itself because it's accused of breaching 'safe space' policy. Again, beyond parody.
In all this, students take inspiration from US campuses where everything from The Great Gatsby to Greek classics come with trigger warnings and you can't go to bed with anyone unless they've signed a contract and had their lawyer check it twice.
The narrow-mindedness shows up in a variety of ways. In Trinity College Dublin the Students' Union has recently decided to bring in mandatory consent classes for first-year students staying in halls. To my mind, forcing students to attend a lecture on the correct way to have sex as a condition of their accommodation is demeaning and patronising, particularly to the young men, who are implicitly treated as potential rapists.
What's more, there's no evidence it'll do anything to curb assaults on campus. Debating the issue on radio stations both North and South, I was dispirited to hear student leaders come out with the usual pseudo-enlightened prattle in defence of the move, which actually conceals an unpleasantly authoritarian underbelly: we are right and we will make you listen, forcibly if necessary.
Queen's already has a bad rep for politically correct, censorious behaviour. A recent survey by Spiked magazine found that both the university and the SU "collectively create a hostile environment for free speech". When I was at Queen's there used to be a bar in the Union called the Speakeasy. I don't know if it's there any more, but if so they might want to consider renaming it. They could do it at the same time they're changing the signs on the bogs.