By Rosie Alger
Debates over how bathrooms should be divided, whether or not they should be labeled as men’s and women’s, and which bathrooms people are allowed to use have been ongoing and filled with turmoil.
One side argues that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their identity, rather than their biological sex, would allow dangerous predators into private spaces. Others speak out for trans and LGBTQ rights, and see inclusive bathroom access as a human rights issue.
Having men’s and women’s bathrooms, even if they represent gender identity and not biological sex, still perpetuates the gender binary and encourages further emphasis of division between the sexes. That being said, there are some benefits to having these gendered bathrooms, as long as they are accessible to trans and non-conforming people, and everyone feels welcome to use them. Regardless, there should always be a gender-neutral bathroom close by to any gendered bathroom.
More and more states have been enacting discriminatory laws prohibiting bathroom access. According to The New York Times, in Nov. of 2015, “After a yearlong battle, Houston voters easily repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance that banned discrimination based on several ‘protected characteristics,’ including gender identity. Opponents said the measure would allow men claiming to be women to enter women’s bathrooms and inflict harm.” Additionally, “Public schools began to write policies requiring transgender students to use private changing and showering facilities, drawing complaints of discrimination.”
On the other hand, there are also people working hard to have LGBTQ rights prioritized and put structures in place to ensure that everyone has a safe environment to use the rest room. The New York Times also reported that in May of 2016, “The Justice and Education Departments issued guidance that, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools receiving federal money may not discriminate based on a student’s transgender status — and that the departments would treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.”
In fact, just this year California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making California the first state to require that all single stall toilets be designated gender neutral. Kate Gibson with CBS reported on this, and said, “The California measure requires that businesses and governments post non-gender- specific signs on single-occupant restrooms by March 1, 2017. Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco said his legislation would establish the nation’s most inclusive restroom-access law and ‘chart a new course of equality for the nation.’”
This is a really important step forward for equality. Why shouldn’t a single stall bathroom be gender neutral? There will only ever be one person in the bathroom anyway, and designating the bathroom as welcome to anyone allows trans, non-binary, and people across the LGBTQ spectrum to use the bathroom peacefully and easily, the same as anyone else. Everyone needs to use the bathroom, and public spaces should have equal access for anyone who needs it. Why couldn’t a similar policy eventually be implemented for stalled, multi-person bathrooms, not just those that are single stall?
LGBTQ folks are facing this issue everywhere, including at Washington College. Senior Roswell Wells identifies as non-binary, and has used men’s, women’s, and gender neutral bathrooms in the past. They talked about the importance of access to comparable, quality bathrooms for everyone. In regards to school situations where trans students were required to use private bathrooms, they said, “It’s really isolating and unhealthy, and other kids notice. Often the bathroom they get to use is in the nurse’s office.”
Wells isn’t looking for all bathrooms to be converted to gender neutral, however. They argued that the binary system most bathrooms currently employ does have its merits, despite enforcing potentially harmful gender norms. In addition to sometimes creating safe space and providing refuge to women, Wells also talked about trans and non-binary people benefiting from being able to use the gendered bathroom that matches their identity. They said, “Non-binary and trans people feel very validated by using the right bathroom.”
Taking away all gendered bathrooms would remove this important benefit to these individuals’ mental health. Wells said, “Making all bathrooms gender neutral would help no one feel bad about using the wrong bathroom, but it also wouldn’t help anyone feel good about using the right one.”
It becomes difficult to have the freedom to do this, however, when trans and nonbinary people face intimidation, harassment, and even violence for using the bathroom. This is especially common when these people are more visibly gender nonconforming. Wells spoke about incidents of verbal intimidation that they and their other gender nonconforming friends have faced. More often than not, this occurs in the women’s restroom in particular.
Wells thinks this speaks to the underlying problem in the fight for bathroom equality. “Trans women are not men. That’s kind of what the whole trans bathroom debate comes down to. People are afraid of the concept of a ‘man’ in a women’s bathroom, which is the core of the whole debate. And to get past that, people need to get that trans women are not men,” they said.
This is where more gender neutral or all-gender inclusive bathrooms come in to play and are so important. Having these as an additional option for people who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe using a gendered bathroom allows for public spaces to be equally accessible to everyone. No student should feel like they need to stay home from school for fear of not being able to use the bathroom.
Wells’ opinion on the matter is that there should be a mix of gendered and neutral bathrooms. “All single stall bathrooms should be all-gender. If you’re going to have gendered bathrooms, there should also be at least one neutral bathroom of similar quality and capacity nearby, to accommodate everyone.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. There is no reason that a single occupancy bathroom couldn’t be neutral and accessible to everyone. While we don’t necessarily need to completely abolish gendered bathrooms completely, there should certainly be more access to all-gender inclusive bathrooms that are not tucked away, isolated, or lower quality. Ultimately, everyone goes into the bathroom for the same reasons. It’s time that we respected everyone’s right to do so.