On Tuesday, April 19 Target announced that all employees and customers may now use whichever restroom or fitting room aligns with their gender identity. The company has faced significant backlash over the past week, most notably in the form of a boycott movement started by the American Family Association (AFA) when it released a petition on Wednesday of Target’s restroom and dressing room policy. The Target initiative comes at a time when transgender rights, and specifically debates over gendered restrooms, are on the minds of many Americans. North Carolina recently passed a law requiring all people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth, which disproportionately affects transgender people. This prompted several major corporations–such as PayPal, Apple and Coca-Cola–to publicly oppose the legislation.
Opponents of gender-neutral restrooms and of the right to choose a gendered bathroom that matches gender identity often cite a fear of sexual assault as a consequence of people using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Studies have found no evidence to suggest that gender-neutral bathrooms make women more vulnerable to sexual assault; however, they have found that 59 percent of transgender women and 75 percent of genderqueer individuals have been verbally harassed while using a gender-dichotomized bathroom (Journal of Public Management and Social Policy, “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives,” 2013). The assault that opposers fear actually disproportionately affects transgender and genderqueer people. Others object to using bathrooms based upon gender identity simply because the idea makes them uncomfortable. Such rationalizations ignore the dangers that transgender individuals face in gendered bathrooms every day, instead blatantly prioritizing the comfort of cisgender people over the safety of the transgender community.
Objections to gender-neutral bathrooms on the basis of safety and comfort are not limited to Southern states and conservative groups. While Vassar has acknowledged the need for gender-neutral bathrooms, the limitations of the initiative necessitate an increased awareness on the behalf of students and faculty alike.
During a forum with the VSA in November, former Director of the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers Judy Jarvis stressed the importance of continuing to push for more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus and of educating students and faculty about trans allyship and the importance of gender-neutral bathrooms. While only four buildings on campus still do not have at least one gender-neutral bathroom, an improvement from 13 total buildings on campus in the spring of 2013, Jarvis stressed that there is still work left to be done in implementation and education. She had at that point received three complaints from professors or staff members who, in some way, objected to the gender-neutral bathrooms initiative (The Miscellany News: Vassar College Live, “VSA 11.8.15”).
Jarvis spoke at the VSA meeting as an advocate for the VSA General Body Resolution on gender-neutral restrooms. Enacted in Nov. 2015, it states, “The College is committed to including at least one gender-neutral restroom in new buildings constructed on campus to the extent feasible.” The Bridge for Laboratory Sciences– the most recently-constructed building on campus–upholds the Resolution, but just barely. The new science facility features exactly one gender-neutral bathroom, and it is inconveniently located in an obscure corner of the second floor. The design of this new building shows that reluctance, not bureaucratic complications of renovating already-existing restrooms, is what prevents the College from committing to the gender-neutral restroom initiative beyond the bare minimum in academic spaces.
The Vassar Queer Health Initiative (VQHI) has called for the majority of bathrooms across campus to be labeled “all-gender.” They asserted that a select few restrooms should remain female-only restrooms, in order to acknowledge the ongoing systemic oppression of women. Earlier in the semester, as a part of this movement VQHI members hung “all-gender” signs on many of the restrooms in the academic buildings that still exclusively have gendered bathrooms, as well as in buildings that already meet the minimum requirements, like Main Building and the Bridge. Within days, many of the signs had been taken down. There is still clear resistance on campus to the institution of gender-neutral restrooms, so it is absolutely crucial that we as a student body do not let this issue fall by the wayside. The discomfort of cisgender people is negligible compared to the ability of trans or gender non-conforming students to have access restrooms in which they feel safe.
For those who do not depend on an all-gender restroom for their own comfort and safety, it is easy to be oblivious to the fact that the gender-neutral bathroom initiative is still necessary. However, during this time of national controversy over gendered bathrooms, we must acknowledge that Vassar has not completely progressed past the same issues. Every building on campus needs to contain a gender-neutral bathroom. Many of the buildings that have either no all-gender bathrooms or an all-gender bathroom in an inconvenient location are thoseaccessed primarily by the public, such as the Bridge Building, the Loeb and the library. It is not enough to only provide for students in the private, residential context of dorms.
Vassar needs to make a commitment on this issue instead of settling for the minimum in order to assure that students are safe and comfortable in academic spaces. Trans allyship means providing for the health and safety of all students in the public as well as private sphere.
We at The Miscellany News endorse the necessity of gender-neutral bathrooms that are present, accessible and visible, along with education for those who may still be apprehensive about them. This could include education for new students and their parents either on campus tours or during freshman orientation, or factual flyers in academic buildings’ restrooms that encourage Vassar staff to see the necessity of this initiative. As evidenced by the fact that academic buildings are the remaining hurdles for this initiative and that Jarvis received complaints from Vassar faculty and staff, the education of those who work at Vassar in academic buildings will be crucial to the success further implementation and normalization of all-gender restrooms on campus.
To anyone who has never experienced a public, all-gender restroom, as is true of many people in the United States, the thought of sharing such a space with other genders can be unsettling. However, this is a cultural norm that most Vassar students say is easy to surpass after living in the dorms for only a short time. Preemptive discomfort simply does not take priority over the ability of trans students to be able to use a restroom to which they feel welcomed. Transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary students all deserve to feel safe and welcome on this campus, which is impossible to achieve without safe restroom spaces. This is a conversation that we need to continue to have, and it is important that we do not preemptively consider ourselves to be fully successful because we are not North Carolina’s state legislature.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least two-thirds of the Miscellany News Editorial Board