Inclusive bathrooms still need progress, students say
By Lydia Denney
A year after the Gender Neutral Facilities Guidelines Advisory Committee was formed in response to students’ requests for more gender-neutral facilities, administrators have doubled the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. However, some transgender students still feel frustrated with the accessibility of these facilities and say that Western can do more for its transgender students.
In January 2016 , the advisory committee was organized to recommend a set of guidelines for gender-neutral facilities on campus. The committee consisted of faculty, staff and students, with input also coming from LGBTQ+ student groups.
According to the guidelines created by the committee, the future changes include converting single-occupancy facilities to be gender neutral, adding gender-neutral restrooms to the main floor in every building and in future construction or renovations and publicizing the location of gender-neutral facilities on campus.
Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, vice provost for equal opportunity and employment diversity and Title IX and ADA coordinator, was a co-chair for the committee. She said before the guidelines committee, there were around 20 gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Over the past year, the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus has increased to around 40, located throughout 19 campus buildings, she said.
However, Guenter-Schlesinger said the map is not updated and only features 17 gender-neutral restrooms, three of which are non-accessible.
“The students were so instrumental in bringing this issue to the forefront. It was back in 2012 that the Associated Students passed a resolution for gender-neutral bathrooms,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “We think it’s very important to have gender-neutral bathrooms and that all of our students, faculty and staff feel safe and included.”
Junior Gabby Rigby is a transgender student studying community health. When Rigby has class in a building with no gender-neutral bathrooms, he said it is frustrating and cuts into his education time.
“Western, as a school, talks a big game about diversity and wanting to include people,” Rigby said. “But when it’s all said and done, the school shows that they don’t really value those diverse bodies that they accepted into the university. And I think that’s really evident in the [lack of gender-neutral] bathrooms.”
Rigby is a bystander intervention specialist for Western’s Empowerment and Violence Education team and also a member of T.A.G. team, a group for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students at Western. He thinks there should be a gender-neutral bathroom in every building on campus because he feels uncomfortable using gendered bathrooms. There haven’t been many changes since he has attended Western, he said.
“Western, as a school, talks a big game about diversity and wanting to include people. But when it’s all said and done, the school shows that they don’t really value those diverse bodies that they accepted into the university. And I think that’s really evident in the [lack of gender-neutral] bathrooms.”
Gabby Rigby, Transgender junior studying community health
Merrin LeClair is a senior studying political science and the events coordinator for T.A.G. team. LeClair is also a transgender student, and said they recognize implementing new facilities takes time, but that they haven’t seen enough changes in their time at Western.
“They’re trying to help us out, but they’re really not going far enough yet. People are not feeling safe or included in their college experience because of it,” LeClair said.
In response to students’ concerns, Guenter-Schlesinger said in an email that the work in identifying single-occupancy restrooms and getting signage up has continued into the summer and that the guidelines will continue to be implemented in the future.
“We are aware of the need for additional gender neutral facilities on the south end of campus and are working with colleagues in Facilities Development to address this need,” Guenter-Schlesinger said in an email.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, more than half of the respondents had avoided using public restrooms, and one-third of respondents had limited the amount that they ate or drank to avoid using the restroom.
“Transgender people often experience harassment when trying to access gender-specific public restrooms,” L.K. Langley, manager of Equal Opportunity programs, said. “One of the great values of gender-neutral restrooms is that there isn’t this kind of gender policing that happens when folks try to access gender-specific restrooms. Gender-neutral restrooms incorporate principles of universal design and are available to people regardless of gender.”
Some students said the problem goes beyond just the number of bathrooms.
A Lack of Accessibility
LeClair wishes that the information on gender-neutral facilities on campus was more accessible, especially for incoming transgender students.
“The only way you can find out about gender-neutral restrooms right now is either someone tells you, or you actively look them up online to see where they are,” LeClair said.
LeClair appreciates that Western has some gender-neutral bathrooms, however, they think the existing gender-neutral facilities are difficult to access.
“If you’re trying to just go to the bathroom in between classes and you only have ten minutes, you don’t want to have to walk to a whole other building and go up an elevator, or go up some stairs to use the bathroom,” LeClair said.
Within the new Sam Carver Gymnasium, there are gender-neutral bathrooms as well as the first gender-neutral changing room on campus. The gender-neutral changing rooms are lockable, private and provide locker facilities, Guenter-Schlesinger said. However, there are still no gender-neutral options at the Wade King Student Recreation Center.
LeClair has been affected by having limited gender-neutral changing room options. They used to be a swimmer before coming to Western, but do not feel comfortable using the binary changing rooms at the rec center in order to use the pool.
“I’ve heard of a lot of trans people who either used to be very into sports, or still are, who feel like they can’t use the rec center because of the gendered changing rooms,” LeClair said. “I feel like that’s something that’s not addressed at all, even if we try to bring it up.”
Outside of the gender-neutral facilities, there are new informational signs that explain why Western provides gender-neutral bathrooms.
“I think it’s a real sign to the campus community and to outsiders who come to visit that we feel this is an important issue,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “We feel it’s important enough to educate the public, whether it’s our own public or outside public, about this as a matter of equity and inclusion.”
While there have been some changes in buildings on campus, recent efforts to limit transgender rights signify there is still work to be done to make students feel safe.
A Changing Conversation
Langley said the attempted Initiative 1552 would have amended the Washington anti-discrimination law, in order to prohibit transgender people from using appropriate gender-specific bathrooms, causing significant harm to transgender people.
“The initiative particularly targeted transgender young people, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community,” Langley said.
LeClair said they have seen a lot of pushback from students and that lot of people think gender-neutral facilities are a waste of money and time or unnecessary.
“I feel like if these people had a chance to meet a trans person, or have this explained to them, maybe they would reconsider those opinions,” LeClair said. “I just know that a lot of the student body either isn’t for [gender-neutral facilities] or thinks that they’re unnecessary, and that’s frustrating.”
At Western’s Lakewood Boathouse, where Rigby has instructed sailing classes, there are only gendered bathrooms and changing rooms. When he brought up creating a gender-neutral option, he said he received support from his student co-workers.
“It’s really important that we as students not only show that we are on board with that image, but also that the university shows that they are on board with that image by promoting safe spaces for diverse people,” Rigby said.
Guenter-Schlesinger said she has not had any complaints against gender-neutral bathrooms come to her office, and she welcomes all voices if anyone is concerned.
“Right now, in this first phase of what we’re doing, these are single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms,” she said.
Guenter-Schlesinger said everybody can use the gender-neutral bathrooms and be assured of their privacy, as the guidelines state.
A Changing Future
Rigby hopes that as the gender-neutral facilities conversation continues to change, there will also be more education, especially for professors, about pronouns.
“Overall, [gender-neutral facilities] wouldn’t be that hard of a change for the university to make,” Rigby said. “They are already taking steps, but I think they should show a commitment to students.”
Guenter-Schlesinger feels fortunate because not every university has the guidelines and support that is at Western.
“We don’t think this is the stopping place, this is the beginning for us,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “We have a direction, we have a purpose and we have an institutionalized document that directs us, and that’s good.”
The map of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus is currently being updated, but there are plans to release the new map this fall and gender-neutral bathroom locations through the Equal Opportunity Office newsletter and Western Today, Guenter-Schlesinger said.