College must sustain gender neutral bathroom initiative

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

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