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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Lack of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus inspires new committee

Gender-neutral restrooms can be found on the third floor of the Viking Union near the Underground Coffee House. These restrooms have locks displaying the occupancy of the room to ensure privacy and safety. The rooms have been deemed gender-neutral in order to accommodate those who don't feel comfortable using a gender-segregated restroom or need to provide assistance for people with disabilities, according to the sign posted on the door. // Photo by Ian Koppe
Gender-neutral restrooms can be found on the third floor of the Viking Union near the Underground Coffee House. These restrooms have locks displaying the occupancy of the room to ensure privacy and safety. The rooms have been deemed gender-neutral in order to accommodate those who don’t feel comfortable using a gender-segregated restroom or need to provide assistance for people with disabilities, according to the sign posted on the door. // Photo by Ian Koppe

When using a bathroom of the gender he doesn’t identify with, Scout Hartman feels like he’s invading a space that wasn’t designed with him in mind.

As a non-binary student and the coordinator for the Queer Resources Center, Hartman wanted to push for more gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, he said.

The newly formed Gender Neutral Facilities Guidelines Advisory Committee is responsible for establishing guidelines for gender-neutral facilities around campus, vice president of student life, Emma Palumbo said.

The purpose of the committee is to “survey gender-neutral facilities at Western, review best practices at other universities” and recommend guidelines for gender-neutral facilities after consulting faculty, student leaders and the university community, according to the committee’s charter.

This issue is especially timely as a bill to reverse the bathroom policy allowing transgender people to choose the restroom of the gender they identify with passed out of a Senate committee 4-3 on Wednesday, Jan. 27. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Erickson from Whatcom County, reversed the rule, “leaving it up to local jurisdictions and businesses to decide what bathroom policy works best for them,” according to The Bellingham Herald.

“I personally think that it’s very insulting that my identity gets to be that policed by our government,” Hartman said. “My body is being policed by our government and that’s not okay with me. I don’t think that their personal opinions should have any role in my ability to use a bathroom.”

Western junior Robert Johnson is not in favor of  the senate bill.

“I feel really uncomfortable with his initiative to repeal the rule. I feel like it was a move in an important direction that we need to make, a move toward equality, and that would be attempting to undermine that,” Johnson said.

The GNFGAC came to fruition after Hartman became the QRC coordinator. A committee was formed around his continued pursuit of an existing issue, Hartman said.

In the formation stages, he met with members of the equal opportunities office to discuss an unmet need in the transgender community.

“That meeting was really a push, as well as a ‘You’re forgetting about people and as the equal opportunities office you can’t really do that,’” Hartman said. “It was this really interesting conversation that also incorporated the issue of how even most of the bathrooms on campus aren’t even [American Disabilities Act] accessible.”

The gender-neutral facilities committee’s first meeting was on Jan. 20, Hartman said.

Hartman would like to see a gender-neutral and ADA accessible bathroom in every building on campus, as well as gender-neutral locker rooms in the Wade King Recreation Center and Sam Carver Gymnasium.

Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, who is also the vice provost of equal opportunity and diversity, chairs the committee. Other members include four student representatives and two faculty representatives from the English and psychology departments, as well as other university administrators, Hartman said.

Currently there are 16 gender-neutral bathrooms around campus. All of the single-stalled restrooms on campus are gender inclusive, Hartman said. In the future, the renovated Carver Gym will have gender-neutral bathrooms, along with a locker room, Palumbo said.

Map of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. // Illustration by Nicole Swift

The gender-neutral bathrooms will be in addition to designated men’s and women’s restrooms, Hartman said.

“I think there are a lot of people who still want gender-segregated bathrooms,” Harman said. “There’s also a couple of different building code laws that are written in the gender binary.”

Johnson feels gender-neutral bathrooms should be expanded to almost all, if not all, bathrooms on campus. Since Johnson is not transgender, he doesn’t feel he has the perspective to say whether or not Western has enough or too few gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, he said.

Johnson said he doesn’t have a problem sharing a locker room with someone of the opposite sex, but acknowledges others may object.

“I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with deviation from the norm, what they’re used to, how they’ve grown up, [and] the cultural ideas behind that,” Johnson said.

Western sophomore Cassie Gammie believes transgender people should be able to use whichever bathroom they wish, but can see why business owners might want to decide whether to keep them gender-specific, she said.

“Even though it’s really great for transgender people, there’s always going to be those people that are not going to use it the correct way, and use it to take advantage of other people,” Gammie said

Some local businesses in Bellingham have already incorporated gender-neutral bathrooms; an example is Mallard Ice Cream in downtown. At Mallard, there are two single-stall restrooms, one door painted blue with a unicorn and the other painted pink with a unicycle on it. Both are painted with the word “unisex.”

Mallard has had a unisex bathroom since they opened their current location nine years ago. Since the bathrooms are single-stalled, owner Ben Scholtz doesn’t see a reason for them not to be gender-neutral.

“It wasn’t intended to be a statement about bathroom access, but it was intended to be aesthetically pleasing and intended to be uninhibited,” Scholtz said.

 

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