Explainer: why transgender students need “safe” bathrooms

Alison Gash, University of Oregon

Bathroom safety has become the next battle for transgender students on college campuses across the nation.

Often referred to as “bathroom desegregation,” calls for safer bathrooms have inspired “shit-ins” at California Polytechnic and San Diego State, where transgender advocates asked student allies to use only gender-neutral restrooms.

Recently, “urine” blockades also confronted Berkeley students at Sather Gate, the main entrance to campus. Advocates filled plastic cups with fake urine and lined them up to greet students as they crossed the threshold into campus to protest inadequate restrooms for transgender students.

Why all the contention over bathrooms? Recent studies suggest that over 50% of transgender individuals will experience sexual assault in their lifetime (a rate that is far higher than for nontransgendered individuals), and using bathrooms could pose a significant threat of physical harm or harassment.

Fear of violence

Studies show that transgender students could be harassed, sexually assaulted or subjected to other physical violence when they are required to use a gendered bathroom.

One survey, commissioned by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA, found that 68% of participants were subjected to homophobic slurs while trying to use the bathroom. Nine percent confronted physical violence.

Another study that surveyed transgender individuals in Washington, DC found that 70% were either verbally threatened, physically assaulted or prevented in some way from using the bathroom of their choice. Some experienced more than one form of such behavior.

Yet another survey found that 26% of transgender students in New York were denied access to their preferred bathrooms altogether.

Redesigning bathrooms

As a result, transgender students need to constantly weigh the trade-offs as they consider bathroom options.

As one University of Washington student articulates:

Do I choose physical safety or emotional safety? Do I choose physical health or mental health?

Universities are bringing in policies to have gender-neutral bathrooms.
Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

So, from California to Texas, in elementary schools and colleges, administrators are considering the costs and benefits of redesigning bathrooms to accommodate transgender students.

For example, students at University of Pittsburgh can now use bathrooms that conform to their own gender identity. Arizona State University, Ohio State and Wesleyan University, among several others, have instituted policies requiring all new construction to include gender-neutral bathrooms. They are assessing how to modify the existing bathrooms to become gender-neutral single-stall facilities.

This is not limited to colleges and universities. As increasing numbers of primary- and secondary-school-aged children are identifying as transgender, public schools have become “ground zero” for fights over bathroom safety.

Miraloma Elementary School, in San Francisco, for instance, removed gendered signs from many of their bathrooms.

In fact, about two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the School Success and Opportunity Act, requiring that all students be able to access bathrooms or locker rooms that are consistent with their own gender identity in California’s K-12 settings.

The ‘bathroom bill’ opposition

But as with other issues concerning transgender rights, some have reacted to these changes with visceral opposition.

For instance, Wisconsin, along with several other states, is considering legislation that would require school districts to only provide separate-gendered bathrooms as a way to stop local school districts from accommodating requests from transgender students.

An elementary school student in Stafford County, Virginia, was prohibited from using the bathroom associated with her gender identity after parents and politicians in the state spoke out against the student’s request.

In fact, opposition to these bathroom accommodations figured prominently in the initiative to vote down Houston’s recent antidiscrimination ordinance, which would have, like hundreds of others across the nation, prohibited discrimination in housing, gender and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, among others.

Opponents dubbed it the “bathroom bill,” framing the policy as one that would permit “men in women’s bathrooms” and would expose women and girls to sexual predators.

Consequently, the ordinance – subjected to public review under court order – failed with 61% of the voters.

This opposition exists even when transgender advocates have not only focused on their own risks but have also invoked the needs of students with disabilities, those who may need “family bathrooms” and students who have survived sexual abuse and are more comfortable with single-stall facilities.

And now, Privacy for All, a group dedicated to opposing transgender bathroom advocacy, is hoping to launch a similar campaign in California. It is currently collecting signatures to bar any public institution from permitting individuals to use bathrooms or changing rooms that comport with their gender identity.

Federal intervention has sent out mixed signals as well. On the one hand, the Department of Education issued a letter to an Illinois school district stating that denying a transgender student’s rights to access a bathroom consistent with their gender identity is a violation of Title IX.

On the other hand, a federal court rejected a transgender student’s claim that his equal rights were violated when his university rejected his request to use a locker room that matched his gender identity.

Need for safety

At this point, for most transgender students, bathroom options are limited.

Transgender students need safe spaces.
Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

Either they have to travel quite a distance to get to the nearest single-stall gender-neutral bathroom, or change in an “alternative” locker room (often a faculty bathroom or custodial closet).

There could even be days when they go to class in their workout clothes or “hold it in.” Hence, demonstrating Berkeley students held out signs that said: “Where was I supposed to go?” or “I couldn’t hold it any longer.”

Such options have clear drawbacks and health risks. Urinary tract infections, depression and even suicide could be among them.

As a result, sometimes students see their best option as renting a house near campus so they can go home to use the bathroom.

As we mark World Toilet Day by campaigning on behalf of the billions of individuals who lack access to safe, clean sanitation, remember that among those denied access to safe bathrooms are transgender students.

The Conversation

Alison Gash, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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