More Gender-Neutral Bathrooms, but Challenges Remain for Trans/Non-Binary Students

Swarthmore College has single-user gender-neutral bathrooms around campus, but they weren’t built for the reason you might expect.

These single-user bathrooms came about to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects C. Stuart Hain and ADA Program Coordinator Susan Smythe, transgender and non-binary identifying students are thus not the main reason the college increasingly builds gender-neutral bathrooms.

“First, because we wanted to be in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act,” Hain said. “Secondly, because we had conversations with the Dean’s staff, including the Intercultural Center, about making sure we did the best we could to make the bathrooms comfortable for everyone.”

Gender-neutral bathrooms, also called “all-gender” bathrooms, are emerging across America. Many college campuses are responding to this trend by incorporating gender-neutral bathrooms into their facilities. Swarthmore is one of these colleges.

“I would say we have at least one in every academic building,” Smythe said.

Most gender-neutral bathrooms are single fixtures, which means only one person can use them at a time. Single-user bathrooms consist of a toilet and a sink, but no urinals or stalls.

One student has expressed discontent over the number of gender-neutral bathrooms in academic buildings.

“There are certainly some gender-neutral bathrooms in some classroom buildings,” Bob* said. “But there are definitely buildings or large areas of buildings that don’t have any.”

Another student echoed this dissatisfaction.

“When it comes to [the] main campus, a lot of frequently used buildings don’t have obvious gender neutral bathrooms,” Sam* said. “Parrish public bathrooms are gendered, Kohlberg bathrooms are gendered, and as large as Science Center is, I still have not been able to find a gender neutral bathroom.”

There are gender-neutral bathrooms in the Science Center’s basement, but most students wouldn’t go there unless they have a lab in the basement. Many classes are held in Science Center so non-binary and trans students must deal with the scarcity of gender-neutral bathrooms on a daily basis.

“My biggest issue is that in these large facilities that have the majority of classes being held, I can’t go to a bathroom I feel comfortable in,” Sam said.

The number of gender-neutral bathrooms in academic buildings is not the only problem non-binary and trans students face. There is some discomfort when using these single-user bathrooms, which were built specifically with the ADA in mind.

“Any gender-neutral bathrooms I find are usually due to handicap accessibility needs and makes me feel that I am taking up someone else’s space,” Sam said. “These are usually single-stalled too, therefore making users feel more ostracized.”

To combat the problem of locating a gender-neutral bathroom, Hain, Smythe, and Assistant Dean and Director for Student Engagement Rachel Head have suggested a directory locating all of the gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. There is currently a list on the Swarthmore website.

“A need for a directory will become more important,” Head said.

The students I spoke with had trouble finding gender-neutral bathrooms.

“I wander around to look for a bathroom,” Bob said.

The signs in buildings that are supposed to direct people to the nearest gender-neutral bathrooms can be confusing.

“Sometimes there are signs to indicate, but sometimes the signs are confusing,” Bob said. “For example, the signs in Trotter on the third floor make it look like the gender-neutral bathrooms are located on the second floor, but that is not the case.”

“A need for a directory [of gender-neutral bathrooms] will become more important,” Head said.

Sam, however, said that having a directory will not solve the whole problem.

“Having a map would be useful, but I hope that more gender-neutral bathrooms are created because there aren’t that many available,” Sam said. “Like I said, most of them are single-stalled, [which] creates the feeling of ‘otherness’ instead of neutrality.”

Sam’s experience does not align with Smythe’s view of single-user bathrooms.

“My impression is that people are very happy with the single-user ones because they are generally more comfortable for everyone,” Smythe said.

Swarthmore does not have multi-user gender-neutral bathrooms in non-residential buildings. Neither do Haverford or Bryn Mawr.

“There are over one hundred [single-user] all-gender restrooms on campus,” Associate Director for Facilities Services of Bryn Mawr College Harold Maryea said.

Unlike Swarthmore’s motivations for having gender-neutral bathrooms, Bryn Mawr built their bathrooms as gender-neutral by default.

“We have built single-use restrooms as a matter of design and use of the building, but are not driven by a particular segment of the community,” Maryea said. “We have not had a project where we built a single-use bathroom because of the drive for all-gender restrooms.”

Maryea does not make these facilities decisions however. He receives instructions from the deans.

“We in facilities respond to requests,” Maryea said.

At Haverford, single-user bathrooms are labeled as gender-neutral. “We took bathrooms that had one fixture, and labeled them as gender-neutral,” Director of Facilities Management of Haverford Donald Campbell said.

Haverford Facilities did not change these single-fixture bathrooms in any other way.

“We didn’t change anything because nobody asked us to change anything,” Campbell said. “All we were asked to do is to designate some restrooms as gender-neutral.”

Haverford’s gender-neutral bathrooms are newly designated. They happened this school year (2015-2016), according to Campbell.

When asked why Haverford does not have multi-user gender-neutral bathrooms, Campbell said, “I know we have [people] that come in and use the restrooms, but I would assume that most people, when they come into a location, want to use a gender specific bathroom.”

Campbell attributed the public’s general discomfort with using gender-neutral bathrooms to a generational difference. Building codes are another obstacle to consider when trying to build gender-neutral bathrooms.

“I know that today’s codes […] still require a men’s restroom and a women’s restroom,” Maryea said.

Sam feels that having gender-neutral bathrooms should not take away gendered bathrooms.

“I can understand why people would feel uncomfortable with using the same bathroom as other genders for certain pressing reasons, but asking for more gender-neutral bathrooms does not mean that we must remove all gendered bathrooms,” Sam said. “I just feel that gender-neutral bathrooms should be more of a common option, as gendered bathrooms are.”

One consideration to think about for gender-neutral bathrooms are urinals, which are intended for male-bodied individuals. Sam expressed comfort with having urinals in a gender-neutral bathroom.

“Having a urinal in a gender neutral bathroom does not bother me at all,” Sam said. “If anything, it makes it accessible even more for all users.”

Bob shares Sam’s view.

“[A urinal] is a thing that could possibly increase the efficiency of the bathroom,” Bob said.

“Most [gender-neutral bathrooms] are single-stalled, [which] creates the feeling of ‘otherness’ instead of neutrality.” – Sam

 

***

It is spring at Swarthmore, which means it is time for students to think about their housing for next semester. Some factors are thought about more often, such as location and roommates. Another factor is whether the bathroom is gendered or gender-neutral.

“We tend to tell students to start thinking about three variables,” Head said. “One is room type. One is bathroom type. And the other is location.”

Assistant Director of Residential Communities Isaiah Thomas believes that Swarthmore provides a good number of gender-neutral housing.

“The college is committed to providing at least one gender-neutral and one gendered bathroom in as many dorms as possible,” Thomas said.

Head reiterated Thomas’s statement.

“Our goal would be that in every residence hall, there’s an option somewhere within the residence hall for both gendered and gender-neutral possibilities,” Head said.

Bob said that the goal of having a gender-neutral bathroom in every residence hall is not met.

“There are a large number of dorms that don’t have gender-neutral bathrooms,” Bob said. “This limits the numbers of dorms that are options for me.”

Sam said that residential halls have adequate numbers of gender-neutral bathrooms, but identified another problem.

“Gender Neutral bathrooms have been adequate in terms of residential halls,” Sam said. “But it can still be inconvenient if the nearest gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t in your hall: shower-going can be an annoying choice to make at times.”

Head believes that having to go to another floor to use a gender-neutral bathroom is an acceptable circumstance.

“We take the approach, Mertz for example, of saying to get to the bathroom you prefer or need, you may have to go up or down a flight of stairs,” Head said.

Thomas said the Housing staff is open to student feedback if students find they have a problem with any aspect of housing.

“Our office is committed to hosting office hours where we talk to students about general questions [and] working with students on an individual basis,” Thomas said.

Student feedback has led to changes in the designation of bathrooms.

“One example of that was Pittenger,” Thomas said. “Currently, our first and third floors are gendered and our second floor is gender-neutral because there was a need and interest to serve both of those residents in that community.”

In the latest housing survey, Thomas did not see an overwhelming need for more gender-neutral bathrooms in residential halls.

“Gender-neutral housing was not an emerging theme that popped up as a general campus-wide concern,” Thomas said. “If there is a general consensus that there aren’t enough, I would want to know that.”

Even if there is not a wide concern for more gender-neutral bathrooms, some students are being forced to misgender themselves by having to use gendered bathrooms.

“Gender-neutral housing was not an emerging theme that popped up as a general campus-wide concern.” – Isaiah Thomas

“The lack of gender-neutral bathrooms creates a constant reminder to me that I need to be outed every time I use the bathroom,” Sam said. “It can also be confusing on how I’m presenting that day since I am non-binary.”

The relative scarcity of gender-neutral bathrooms can also make non-binary and trans students feel marginalized.

“I think there definitely has to be more because just the notion of gendered bathrooms and no gender neutral ones is a constant reminder that those of us who are trans or genderqueer don’t deserve our own spaces to comfortably use a bathroom,” Sam said. “It reminds us that we have to pick one side and that it becomes a game of ‘passing’ when you use a gendered one, while in a gender-neutral bathroom, one does not feel as if they must fit into whatever binary bathroom they entered.”

 

*Sam and Bob’s names were changed to preserve their anonymity.

Featured image courtesy of educationnews.org


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David Chan

David, some know him by his nickname DJ, is a sophomore from the Bay Area. He has plans to major in film and media studies and to minor in English Literature. He enjoys swimming and traveling to different places. Because fall is the season when new and returning TV shows premiere, he will spend a lot of his free time during fall semester watching all of his favorite shows, which include American Horror Story, Scream Queens, and How to Get Away with Murder.

6 comments

  1. 6
    Anna Eighty Three says:

    I graduated Swarthmore way back in 1983. The word transgender didn’t exist back then, but that’s what I was. During my last two years at Swarthmore I used to skirts around campus in an experience which I now understand was the beginning of my coming out and an early effort at transition. I wasn’t able to complete that transition until thirty years later. But I look back on that time at Swarthmore as an essential moment in the acknowledgement and expression of my identity.

    People didn’t really know what to make of me at the time, but they allowed me to be and they (mostly) didn’t try to crush me. At the time I wouldn’t have dreamed of using the women’s bathroom, but also felt comfortable enough to carefully use the men’s room while wearing a skirt. What else was I going to do? Had their been a multi-use gender neutral bathroom at the time, I believe I would have wept with relief.

    Gender non-conformity was so far off of people’s radar back then that I suspect I was not so much perceived as a threat as simply an oddity. But there was an atmosphere of rigorous tolerance which allowed me to claim an aspect of my as yet unnamed identity. I am immensely grateful for that. To my mind, it says a lot about the school that it was a safe enough place for me to do that.

    I have to believe that the school which gave me that space way back then is fully capable of creating safe and neutral spaces for trans and (especially) non-binary people to pee…spaces which don’t mark and other us, spaces which allow us our basic dignity alongside our fellow humans.

  2. 2
    we should have more all-gender bathrooms, in the mean time... says:

    …FYI, if you’re looking for gender neutral in sci center near the commons, Cornell Library has a single-use by the printer on the main floor. You’re right tho, the chem side of sci center doesn’t have any 🙁

  3. 2
    2018 says:

    There is already a multi-user, gender-neutral bathroom in a non-residential building (McCabe 2nd). So, adding more wouldn’t be unprecedented.

  4. 0
    An Egg says:

    On locations of gender-neutral bathrooms in Kohlberg and Sci: Kohlberg has them on the ground floor in that little offshoot area where 115 and 116 and whatnot are, but those are the only ones I’ve found. Sci has the one in Cornell, as well as one on the second floor directly across from the CS overflow lab, 238, at the very end of the hallway.

    But yes, the college should definitely have more – upper floors of Kohlberg, the other end of Sci, and in a lot of the dorms where some of the bathrooms are designated as gender-neutral, they aren’t particularly convenient. (Example: Mertz last summer – don’t know about this year – where the second floor’s bathrooms were gender-neutral; there were four bathrooms on each floor, so why not make one pair on each floor gender-neutral, especially as those four were about fifty feet away from each other and down the hall is a heck of a shorter walk than upstairs )

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