When Vassar went co-ed in 1969, house floors and wings were divided by gender. By the 1990s, all the houses, except for Strong, went co-ed. The term “gender neutral bathrooms” is a more recent description, one that has come into use in the last 15 years.
Today, college community members are working to expand gender neutral bathrooms to every building in campus. In anticipation, a coalition of students, faculty and staff have planned a push in the coming months to increase campus awareness around them.
VP for Student Life Danny Dones said that opposition to gender neutral bathrooms stems mainly from misunderstandings about specifics of the plan and its implementation.
“Resistance thus far has come mostly from confusion as to what the goal of this initiative is,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Dones, emphasizing the initiative’s real mission, continued, “The goal is to provide all members of our community with a choice so that they can fulfill the basic need of access to a public restroom that they feel safe using. The goal is not to eliminate gendered bathrooms, acknowledging that some members of our community are not comfortable with gender neutral bathrooms for various reasons.”
To increase awareness and make their intentions clear, a forum was held the past Wednesday Feb. 19 in Rocky 300 as part All College Day. The forum was hosted by the Office Campus Life and Diversity staff of the LGBTQ Center and Dones.
One of the students involved with the movement for increased access to gender neutral bathrooms, Willow Carter ’15, said gendered bathrooms can be threatening spaces for those who are trans, genderqueer, non-binary or gender nonconforming.
Questions or harassment about why one is using a particular bathroom can be incredibly hurtful and stressful, according to Carter.
She wrote in an emailed statement, “I think that it is extremely important that we provide safe, accessible bathrooms in every building.”
Director of the Women’s and LGBTQ centers Judy Jarvis echoed Carter, saying that gender-specific bathrooms are frequently trying spaces for individuals in the trans* community. Furthermore, Jarvis sees the expansion of gender neutral bathrooms are aligned with the college’s mission.
As Jarvis wrote in an emailed statement, “Studies and anecdotal evidence support that for trans and genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, single-gender bathrooms are the top site of harassment, questioning and policing. This causes great stress and can even lead to medical problems. We can do better than that at Vassar.”
Currently, the coalition is working to increase access to gender neutral bathrooms through two phases. The first phase, which they hope to complete by the end of this spring, is to improve signage and increase awareness.
The coalition is identifying gender-specific single-occupancy bathrooms in academic buildings without any gender neutral bathrooms. Jarvis mentioned that the these bathrooms would be updated to non-binary signage.
Phase two focuses on creating at least one accessible gender neutral bathroom in every building on campus. Starting in the Fall of 2014, this phase will entail consulting with employees who oversee and use the facilities in which the gender neutral bathrooms will be created, and making sure that the college’s commitment to creating gender neutral bathrooms in every building is acted upon.
For the college, both phases ultimately tie into important policies. Jarvis explained, writing, “We have a non-discrimination policy that includes ‘gender identity,’ and increasing the number and accessibility of gender neutral bathrooms on campus is one important way that we can live up to that non-discrimination policy.”
Across the country, over 150 colleges have gender neutral bathrooms. This data, however, mostly refers to colleges that have single-stall gender neutral bathrooms, as opposed to the full bathrooms installed in houses (“Ways that U.S. Colleges and Universities Meet the Day-to-Day Needs of Transgender Students,” 2013).
Jarvis believes that this initiative is a way for Vassar to become a model for other institutions’ policies. “In the same way we were leading the way with gender neutral dorm bathrooms, we also have an opportunity to lead the way on providing at least one gender neutral bathroom in all administrative and academic buildings,” wrote Jarvis.
She continued, “We currently have 13 administrative and academic buildings with NO gender neutral bathrooms at all, and this is crucial to correct if we as an institution are committed to providing safety for our transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming students and employees.”
The coalition’s work is ultimately an effort to make all students feel comfortable and to adapt how the Vassar community responds to its students emerging needs.
As Carter wrote, “Vassar needs to make the safety of trans students a priority, and center the voices and experiences of trans students in any discussion about their needs.”
Jarvis, meanwhile, is optimistic about the initiatives future in the coming months and even semesters.
She wrote, “Working on a campus-wide facility effort is a major undertaking, but I think we have some good momentum to provide education and create clear and well thought-out plans to meet our goals of improving signage, increasing awareness and education, and providing at least one gender neutral bathroom in all administrative and academic buildings.”