Emily Kowalik ‘18
Obama-era protections were hailed as providing students the right to “use the restroom that feels most comfortable to them.”
Since Oct. 1. 2016, Massachusetts law has protected the right of all people to use the sex-segregated facilities that are most consistent with their sincerely held gender identity.
But, that level of protection assumes that, for all people, a comfortable option exists. For people who are still trying to understand their identity, no gendered restroom is comfortable. That is why we must look to the solution of gender-neutral restrooms.
Members of many groups find the necessity of choosing between a stall and a urinal intrusive.
As one member of the trans community says: “If I choose the women’s restroom, I risk facing panicked women who take one look at my facial hair and assume that I’m a predator. If I choose the men’s restroom, I risk facing transphobic men who, with one glance at my dangling earrings, begin hurling slurs or throwing punches.”
Gender-neutral bathroom facilities are better because they provide a safer and more welcoming space to someone who may not identify with the male/female gender binary. By removing the pressure of a decision between using the men’s or women’s, gender-neutral restrooms make it easier for people at various stages of transition. This may prevent trans or non-binary people from feeling stuck between two difficult choices.
Gendered bathrooms remain one of the only public places divided by gender. Isn’t it time that gendered public restrooms went away?
The Fort River Elementary school in Amherst and the J.F.K Middle School in Northampton have both offered its students unisex restrooms since early this year. The Northampton Superintendent’s office has promised that gender-neutral bathrooms will be opening eventually in all Northampton schools.
UMass Amherst has 135 gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, which are all single-stall restrooms with full doors. Over the past two years, UMass had made a conscious push to increase the number of gender-inclusive restrooms on campus.
Yet, this September, the flagship campus turned several restrooms back to women-only bathrooms – based on their understanding of the state law.
In response, the student body protested. UMass officials joined the students in filing an appeal to the state’s plumbing law. The state ruled in October that the residential dorm favored by the spectrum, LGBTQ community at the University of Massachusetts Amherst can have its two gender-inclusive multi-stall bathrooms back.
The ruling considered the appeal by nine students and UMass officials, many of whom testified in Boston in favor of a petition asking for a waiver from state plumbing code regulations for the restrooms in Baker Hall.
This demonstrates that concerted efforts can move Massachusetts laws on the subject of gender- neutral bathrooms forward. We need to work for a fundamental change so that all restrooms are just labeled “restroom” – for restroom availability is only an issue of convenience for some people, but for many it’s much, much more.