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“We Just Want to Pee:” The Fight for All-Gender Bathrooms on Campus

Campus | October 10, 2017

CW: transphobia 

In 2016, the Campus Pride Index named Tufts a “Top 30 School For LGBT Students.” Their criteria include resources like an LGBT Center, counseling for LGBT students, and policy inclusion. What it doesn’t include is access to and availability of all-gender bathrooms. Had their rankings included this, Tufts’ five-out-of-five-star score might have been different.

Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus has a serious lack of all-gender bathrooms. Hubs like the Campus Center, Dewick Dining Hall, and Carmichael Dining Hall only have multi-stall single-gendered bathrooms.

For some students, this means they do not have a single-stall bathroom they can use if they are looking for some privacy. For other students— specifically trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary students—this means they might not have a safe and affirming bathroom they can use in the entire building, or even in the surrounding area.

This is puzzling. At a school like Tufts where rainbow flags fly from the administrative buildings, one would imagine that all-gender bathrooms would be a standard on campus.

According to Hope Freeman, the Director of the LGBT Center, Tufts only has around 12 to 14 bathrooms specifically designated as all-gender. This leaves many students wondering, specifically those who only feel comfortable using all-gender bathrooms: Why doesn’t Tufts have more all-gender bathrooms? And what is being done to change this problem?

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Calls for more all-gender bathrooms are hardly new to campus. In 2002, a trans student named Stacey Anderson spoke to the Tufts Daily in an article called, “Transgendered students face unique challenges at college.” Anderson spoke to the difficulties of using single-gendered bathrooms mid-transition, citing fears for her safety on campus.

Since this time, senate resolutions have passed, Change.Org petitions have been made, task forces have started, and students have been demanding safe, gender-affirming, and accessible spaces to use the restroom. But much remains the same.

Max Battle, a trans non-binary junior, and a member of the Observer’s podcast team, spoke of their safety concerns using bathrooms on campus. Referencing recent events of harassment that trans and gender non-binary students have been facing on campus, Battle said, “Using the men’s bathroom is terrifying—especially because I know that there are men on this campus who drive around yelling at gender non-conforming people.” Battle said safety is one huge component of the necessity for gender neutral bathrooms, but the issue goes beyond that. “Forcing people to pick between the men’s room and the women’s room reinforces the notion that non-binary people are ‘basically men/women,’” they said. “This has much bigger consequences than just using the bathroom.”

Many trans and gender non-binary students who spoke to the Observer echoed Battle’s statement. One student said, “All I really want to do is pee, not re-hash my entire relationship to the gender binary in my head; I find myself mentally spiraling afterward, wondering […] how people see me, or if I am how I see [myself].” Students spoke to the exhausting daily traumas of having to put yourself in spaces with a gender you not only do not identify with, but also might actively reject.

Another student said that, “Gender neutral bathrooms are the only bathrooms I feel safe using, and they are the only bathrooms that don’t force me to misgender myself.” Having this safety proves difficult though, as almost all the interviewed students mentioned that they have one or more classes in buildings without access to gender neutral bathrooms.

Further, when there are all-gender restrooms, there still are not enough to alleviate some other problems trans and non-binary students are facing. MJ Griego, a non-binary senior, said, “Tisch has single stall bathrooms, but cis[gender] people use them all the time for privacy, leaving trans and disabled people, who need that space, to wait in lines.”

Because there are so few all-gender bathrooms, trans and gender nonconforming students spoke of having to wait in line—sometimes for upwards of ten minutes—to use the only nearby bathroom where they feel safe. “I don’t think cis people think about how much planning a lot of us do in our day to make sure we don’t have to pee unexpectedly or in a place that feels unsafe,” said Emma Youcha, a non-binary senior.

Safety, in this context, does not necessarily just refer to the physical definition of the word, as it also extends to one’s emotional and mental safety in spaces on campus. Freeman said, “There is a sense of urgency around making sure that bathrooms are appropriately labeled, that people can see where the bathrooms are, know where the bathrooms are, and don’t have to be walking all over the place holding it and ultimately leading to medical problems [and] mental health problems. All of this is relevant when talking about access to bathrooms.” Freeman and students emphasized it as a matter of feeling secure in both the space around you and in your own body and mind.

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Administrators at Tufts know about the severe lack of all-gender restrooms, and acknowledge it is part of the larger work the University is undertaking to support trans and gender non-binary students.

Barbara Stein, the Vice President of Operations, noted that, “Establishing and installing gender-neutral restrooms on campus is part of a larger, university-wide effort to support our transgender and gender non-conforming community members.”

Chris Rossi, the associate Dean of Student Affairs, said he and his colleagues are trying their best to improve and add all-gender bathrooms, but in some cases, this is not something as simple as just putting up a new sign. Rossi said, “We need to move to, and we are moving towards, having multiple configurations that best allow for different options within a building.” This, Rossi hopes, will give students access to basic accommodations they need so they will not have to schedule “special conversations with university administrators.”

He added, “That’s what we are ultimately driving towards […] I’m happy with our progress, but not satisfied with where we are.” This continued work is necessary, according to Rossi, because, “we have trans students, non-binary students, who don’t feel seen, heard, supported here at Tufts. Period.”

Some of the school’s larger projects include providing all-gender bathrooms in all residence halls and making a more formalized process for how floors can determine the fate of their multi-stall bathrooms.

This year, enacting Residential Life’s policies on converting single-gendered multi-stall bathrooms to all-gender bathrooms was complicated for residents of Carmichael Hall. Carmichael has single-stall, all-gender bathrooms on its top floor and on the ground levels. But when residents started their year with Carmichael’s new open-housing policy, they found that the multi-stall bathrooms throughout the building were not gendered. Some Community Development Advisors—who replaced Resident Advisors in the new Residential Life model—held votes on whether to make the multi-stall bathrooms all-gender. In the end, all multi-stall bathrooms were converted back to single-gendered restrooms. While the goal was to facilitate conversations in the dorms about assigning binary genders to bathrooms—and perhaps even having some multi-stall, all-gender bathrooms—the current bathroom configuration in Carmichael has returned to “men’s” and “women’s.”

One CDA explained the decision out of “our desire not to make anyone uncomfortable.” Rossi recognizes that this comfort clearly didn’t factor in trans and non-binary voices. “A lot of the systems [used to determine bathroom policies], while well-intentioned and participatory, marginalized [certain] people,” he said.

Sarah D’Annolfo, the Associate Director of Residential Education, agreed, saying, “Were we able to go back, we could have had a more productive conversation where people can choose something based on how they identify.” D’Annolfo, along with other Residential Life staff, are working on making their policies as inclusive as possible, saying the office really values and encourages student input. They are also working to ensure that all dorms, like Houston Hall, will have all-gender bathrooms in the near future.

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 Many of our peer institutions have faced similar issues, and responded accordingly. Brown University acted on students requests for all-gender bathrooms with an immediate change to all single-stall bathrooms. On top of this, their policy on bathrooms states, “When Brown builds a new building or does a major building renovation, we have a standard practice of including or adding a gender inclusive restroom.”

Vassar College explicitly connects administrative efforts to increase all-gender restrooms with their responsibility to protect all marginalized groups. “Gender-neutral bathrooms are one way we live up to that policy.” Vassar emphasizes that gender identity and gender expression are protected classes under their non-discriminatory policy, and therefore as a university they have an obligation to provide access to bathrooms.

While Tufts also recognizes gender identity and expression as protected categories of identity, their present failures to provide non-binary students adequate access to bathrooms—a public accommodation—are clear. When Rossi was asked if Tufts’ compliance with their own policy seems limited, sporadic, and inconsistent, he declined to comment, saying, “You raise an important question, but one on which I can’t comment.”

Connecticut College takes its commitment to all-gender bathrooms a step further, citing moral and legal obligations to provide all students access to bathrooms on campus. Their policy states that, “Access to public accommodations has been a central struggle of many civil rights movements throughout history, including that of African Americans, disability rights activists and LGBTQIA people.” They continue by saying, “Restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and changing areas are common spaces that we navigate on a daily basis; they also serve as lightning rods for the enforcement of gender norms, the policing of transgender people, and sadly, a significant amount of violence. Gender inclusive restrooms are one small but important step in making the world a safer place for transgender and gender non-conforming people.”

Connecticut College’s choice to link bathroom access to larger civil rights struggles is crucial in understanding the importance of the fight for all-gender bathrooms. Providing adequate access to all-gender bathrooms is not just about giving trans and gender non-conforming people a safe place to use the bathroom, but it’s also about recognizing their inherent humanity.

“Increasing the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms continues to be a concern,” Stein made clear. In the meantime, while bureaucracy, legal issues, and projected costs of creating all-gender bathrooms slow the process, students have been taking matters into their own hands.

Yoji Watanabe, a non-binary sophomore, said, “Last year in Lewis [Hall], I was expected to walk down three hallways and a stairwell to access a gender-neutral bathroom. That was bullshit, so I made a sign designating the bathroom as gender-neutral.” Watanabe said the sign stayed up in Lewis for the rest of the year—without a single complaint.