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Bathrooms and the Fight Over Civil Rights

Last winter at FA, a gender-neutral bathroom was installed on the second floor of Frost Hall. A new sign was simply ordered and replaced the existing one stating “Women’s Room.” It is a single stall restroom, sitting directly across from the door to Nurse Jensen’s office. The Student Faculty Board was responsible for coming up with this idea, and getting it passed and finalized. Nationally, there has been a movement increasing the number of these bathrooms in public places. They are used by and made for people who, for whatever reason, don't feel comfortable or included using solely a men’s or women’s bathroom. Like any seemingly progressive movement, it has a caused a fair amount of backlash, both on a civil and state level. The bathroom, unsurprisingly, has a long history of being a battleground for civil rights- as those spaces have previously been for women, African-Americans, and the disabled. Are gender-neutral bathrooms the future? Morally compromising? Dangerous?

One way to answer these questions is by looking at the cities, schools, and landmarks across our country that have already made drastic changes both forwards and backwards in regard to these bathrooms. One example, San Francisco, has long been considered one of the most progressive, LGBT-friendly cities in the United States. During September of this year, Supervisor David Campos announced plans to introduce a bill that would make many city bathrooms gender-neutral. The measure mandated that “all single-occupancy bathrooms in the city be relabeled as places for all genders, rather than solely ‘men’ or ‘women.’” This bill also mandated that all new construction in the city must have a gender-neutral bathroom on each floor. The bill also put in place “sweeping enforcement mechanisms," including a complaint process handled by the Human Rights Commission, an LGBT rights organization, and a requirement that gender-neutral facilities be a standard checklist item for building inspections. Eventually, this bill was passed with large support.

San Francisco isn’t alone in this legislation. The cities of Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., West Hollywood, Calif. and Austin, Texas, also have gender-neutral bathroom provisions. Not surprisingly, over 150 United States college campuses are embracing this change, including the entire University of California system. Last April, even the White House installed a gender-neutral bathroom. 

These changes have prompted a strong negative reaction in a number of states. Bills in Missouri, Indiana, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are now being considered (and some even passed) that would determine access to public restrooms according to a person’s biological sex at birth, not allowing newly state-recognized transgender people access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Wisconsin, despite having liberal enclaves such as Milwaukee and Madison, is preparing to mandate a bill that states that all sex-specific bathrooms be used by students according to their biological sex, “as determined by an individual’s chromosomes and identified at birth by that individual’s anatomy.” Similarly, in Indiana, breaking this law could result in the punishment of up to a year in jail and a five-thousand-dollar fine. How are we to check someone’s biological sex at birth? Sasha Buchert of the Transgender Law Center says such laws are unenforceable. “Are they going to place security guards at each bathroom to do DNA tests to verify folks’ chromosomes?” she asks.

Last year a campaign was launched in Houston, Texas against an anti-discrimination ordinance that prohibited discrimination in employment and housing based on categories including sex, race, religion, and gender identity. It was painted by opponents it as a “bathroom ordinance.” The ads, costing nearly a million dollars, illustrated a little girl sporting white lace socks and a pigtail being followed into the bathroom by an older man, and another that depicted unknowing suspects in a bathroom with a convicted sex offender. The ads were meant to inspire fear for the safety of women and girls in connection to sexual assault. This campaign was successful—the ordinance was defeated in referendum. Erick Erickson, political blogger, posted an article titled “Perverts and the Mentally Ill Lose in Houston, TX.” He wrote:

In Houston, TX, perverts and the mentally ill worked together with the gay rights lobby to let men use women’s bathrooms. They called anyone who disagreed with them “bigots.” … Tonight, the people of Houston fought back and rejected the attempt to allow perverts, the mentally ill, liars, and others who want to get into opposite sex bathrooms. Christians and common sense won. Perverts, the mentally ill, and the gay rights mob lost.

Nothing like a few intemperate remarks from a right-wing pundit.

But enough with the farcical declarations—where do the facts lie? What concrete evidence is there to formulate a fact-based stance? Well, if the argument is about safety and preserving an order that enables wellness and security, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, a woman is assaulted every 107 seconds in our country. Are the people who are using this argument, who seemingly care so deeply about it that they are willing to deny someone of their rights, fighting to end the prevalence of this epidemic? The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network also estimates that there is an average of 293,066 victims, ages 12 or older, of rape and sexual assault each year. What do you do in your community to start a conversation about this? If preservation of specifically women's safety and wellbeing is that big of a concern to you, why aren’t you already aware of these facts? Could it be that your compassion ends where social progression begins, or was it never a question of compassion at all? Furthermore, these statistics suggest something important about public spaces: approximately 4/5 of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim; 82% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger; 47% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance; and 25% are an intimate. These statistics prove that it is not the public sphere where strangers pass, or even use the bathroom, that is the underlying issue or concern. 82% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non- stranger. 82! That is an egregiously high number. 25% are an intimate partner. The bathroom is clearly not more of a battleground than the bedroom. By no mark is the calling for gender-neutral bathrooms completely clear cut and obvious, but it is imperative that we are educated on and actually care about the argument that we use, one way or another

As for the gender-neutral bathroom at FA, it still sits across from Nurse Jensen’s office. When I asked her about the status of its use or controversy it has caused since being there, she looked at me perplexedly. I clarified and asked her what has come of it, being the first and only gender neutral bathroom in the school and all the conversation around it in our community and nationally. She told me that students and teachers alike use it fairly often. And that is really all she could tell me. How mundane.


  1. Carol Van Auken June 10, 2016

    Nicely done, Catherine!

  2. Casey Reed June 16, 2016

    Great article – I especially love the final paragraph 🙂

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