Although we don’t often consider bathrooms to be a political issue, they have a surprisingly complex history regarding who has and who does not have access to them in the United States. For many years, only the very wealthy could afford to have private bathrooms installed in their homes – leaving the rest to use public toilets that were often extremely unhygienic. Up until the Civil Rights movement in the latter half of the 20th century, American restrooms were racially segregated. And it wasn’t until the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1980 that regulations for accessible public bathrooms were created.
Today, this struggle continues in the form of a public debate over the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms, largely for the benefit of those who identify as transgender, genderqueer, or otherwise outside of the traditional gender binary. A gender-neutral or “all-gender” bathroom is one that is not specifically labeled for men or for women and is typically single-stall with a lockable door- similar to what we know as “family” bathrooms. These bathrooms also provide access for families with small children and individuals who need assistance using the restroom and their attendants who may not be the same gender.
Facing Harassment When Nature Calls
While choosing which public bathroom to enter is an automatic reflex to many, it can be a conflicting and even dangerous dilemma for those who identify outside the gender binary. The Transgender Law Center helpline receives 2,500 requests each year from callers who are not allowed to use the appropriate restroom or who have been attacked in public restrooms. A 2002 San Francisco Human Rights Commission study showed that close to half of transgendered respondents had experienced harassment or assault while using public bathrooms, while a 2013 Williams Institute study indicated that 70% of transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents in Washington, DC had similar experiences. Such experiences with transphobic discrimination and violence can, understandably, lead to avoidance of public restrooms, which in turn can lead to notable health problems.
College Campuses Create Safe Spaces
A growing awareness of the problems that accompany single-sex restrooms, as well as the ever-growing visibility of LGBTQ groups and activists, is prompting the building or re-labeling of existing single-stall bathrooms to gender-neutral bathrooms in public spaces throughout the United States, with the primary arena being college campuses. According to the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, over 150 U.S. colleges have or are in the process of implementing gender-neutral bathrooms on their campuses. These colleges include Northwestern University, Illinois State University, Oberlin College, UC San Diego, and Tufts University. There may be several reasons for colleges serving as centers of progress on this issue. Generally speaking, college students tend to be more likely to show progressive politics and to be involved in political activism. Most colleges host LGBTQ student groups, which often provide the initiative for making campus changes such as the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms. Additionally, such college activists negotiate these changes with school administrations – relatively simple structures compared to state or federal legislatures.
College campuses may in fact be a critical space for gender-neutral bathrooms to be implemented for another important reason. College is often a time of self-discovery and development, and this may include an exploration of one’s gender identity. Students should be able to do this safely and without judgment. Moreover, it is essential to consider that college campuses are, above all, spaces for education. When a student must compromise their education and class time for their personal safety regarding a basic human function, it signals a need for structural change. For this same reason, the trend is also appearing in some high schools, such as Ulysses S. Grant High School in Oregon, which has designated six of its restrooms as gender-neutral.
As of April 2014, graduate student union workers across the University of California system have made a “tentative agreement” with the University administration regarding gender-neutral bathrooms, where students who experience problems with access to bathrooms may submit letters to the administration, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Although it may not be considered a total triumph, this represents a step in the right direction for LGBTQ activists and gender-neutral bathroom supporters.
Looking back on history, it seems that many successful political and social justice movements have had their origins on college campuses. If current trends continue, the same may hold true for the implementation of public gender-neutral bathrooms.
Madeline Crone is working towards a BA in psychology with a minor in biology at Mount Holyoke College. Her interests include intersections of feminism with sexuality as well as sexual psychophysiology.