[Alanna created this feature. She is a student at American University who interned at Advocates for Youth in the summer of 2004.]
Imagine a life in which even the simplest tasks are rendered impossible. A life in which going to a public restroom is dangerous because you could be harassed, beaten, even arrested. Perhaps in this existence you are afraid to go to college, because the idea of living with a stranger in a dorm room is terrifying.
This existence is reality for many transgender people, and even folks who don’t look traditionally male or female. Masculine women, feminine men, transsexual and transgender people often face obstacles in public places that the rest of us take for granted, like restrooms. Dean Spade, for example, a transgender person and also a lawyer, was arrested along with two friends for using Grand Central Station’s men’s room in New York City because he was perceived as being in the wrong place.
Spade, who is an activist, later helped create “Toilet Training,” a documentary about gender-neutral restrooms, as well as authored a companion guide to the video for activists and educators. In this guide, Spade wrote, “We should all be treated on an equal basis with other people who share our gender identity. No one should be forced to use a facility that does not match their gender identity.”
Although many jurisdictions across the United States are only beginning to create transgender-inclusive non-discrimination laws, restroom access is not a new issue. During segregation, civil rights activists struggled to end racially segregated restrooms. More recently, many activists have called for restrooms to be made accessible for disabled people.
In an action kit published for transgender youth, Lambda Legal and NYAC (National Youth Advocacy Coalition) discuss the challenges of using certain spaces as a trans person. “Some transgender people avoid public restrooms altogether, which can lead to health risks if physical needs are constantly ignored. Also, negotiating the locker room can be difficult when you have to change clothes at school,” the kit reads.
So how does one help change a system that alienates people who don’t always fit into a binary gender structure? First, it’s important to understand the terminology associated with transgender issues and access. Check out the glossary for more information.
Increasingly, there are organizations and agencies that are fighting for access rights for transgender people. One such group is the San Francisco-based People In Search of Safer Restrooms, which is “committed to establishing gender-neutral restrooms” so that people, regardless of how they identify or present their genders may access safe restrooms without fear of harassment or violence. People in Search… is sponsored by the Transgender Law Center , a civil rights organization that advocates for transgender communities. Another group is the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which fights gender identity discrimination and lists successfully de-gendered and trans-safe restrooms on its Web site.
There are many universities where students have successfully encouraged their administrations to create gender-neutral facilities. One example is Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where next year all housing will be gender-neutral. According to Zach Strassberger, a student who advocated for gender-neutral restrooms and housing on campus, incoming freshman will be asked if they care about the gender of their roommates. Those who mark “don’t care” are placed together, regardless of their genders.
Strassberger said that, if for example, an MTF first-year enters the school wanting to live with another woman, “Wesleyan will room her with a first-year woman who marked that she doesn’t care about her roommate’s gender, just so that MTF women can be sure to be in an accepting roommate situation.”
Wesleyan also offers Open House, which is for second, third, and fourth-year students, and designed to acknowledge queer life. “The people who live there might be hetero or queer, activist or not... it's an important gathering space and a safe space, but it's certainly not the only space where queers can live on campus,” Strassberger said.
Ohio State University in Columbus is also trans-friendly in that it is the only school in Ohio to include gender identity and gender expression in its non-discrimination policy (and one of only 28 colleges and universities nation-wide). Toni Greenslade-Smith, Director of Housing Assignments at OSU, said this impacts living arrangements and restroom facilities.
“Increasingly, we’ve had students who have self-identified as transgender and have indicated that they have special needs regarding roommates and restroom facilities,” Greenslade-Smith said. “When students indicate they are transgender, we will to identify what will best meet their needs.”
OSU features a program called Allies for Diversity that Greenslade-Smith said, supports students with differences, regardless of what the differences are. Members receive sensitivity training.
“They learn what to do if someone comes to them and says, ‘I’m being discriminated against,’” Greenslade-Smith said. If a transgender student at OSU doesn’t know someone to live with, the student is encouraged to live with an ally. Otherwise, the Office of Residential Life works on getting that student a single room. Many rooms at OSU also have either private or semi-private restrooms that are gender-neutral.
For links to other American colleges and universities that offer gender-neutral facilities, see below. On many college campuses and in other public spaces, the idea of creating gender-neutral restrooms is highly controversial. Many people are confused about the significance of such facilities. Some wonder, why are these necessary? Why should transgender people receive special privileges? What if I don’t feel comfortable using a gender-neutral restroom?