Students at Sandee High School in Los Angeles are the latest to campaign for gender-neutral bathrooms as a way to protect transgender and other students who don’t feel safe or comfortable with the status quo. In a student-penned Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times’ High School insider, user Brobinson1 wrote, “For many years on the campus of Santee, we have seen the need for gender-neutral restrooms. Many students on campus feel unsafe and unwanted in the gender specific restrooms we have now. When you come to school, it’s supposed to be a safe space. Santee’s mission statement is ‘Santee will become a safe, supportive and caring institution of academic excellence’ and by having gender-neutral restrooms, it will help us fulfill this mission.” The student wrote that there’s “excitement on campus,” evidenced by 400 signatures they’ve gathered so far for this initiative, and that they hope to foment a “toilet revolution” in their school district.
They’re riding a wave of activism around the issue at high schools in Needham, Massachusetts, and Des Moines, Iowa, among many others, where administrators have enacted gender-neutral restrooms as a result of students speaking out on the issue. In 2013, after North Portland, Oregon’s Grant High School instituted six unisex bathrooms in response to student complaints, transgender student Grant Morrison told the Oregonian he had stopped drinking water in order not to be forced to choose between the girls or boys bathroom. Of the change, Morrison said, “You don't even have to think about it, and that's great.”
Of course, the need for such facilities extends far beyond schools into any public arena where it’s a concern for those who might face harassment because of their gender. It’s become a prominent issue on college campuses and in local legislatures such as New York City, where on Monday Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order “that guarantees people access to single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity at city facilities,” according to CBS New York. Of the decision, de Blasio said, “Access to bathrooms and other single-sex facilities is a fundamental human right that should not be restricted or denied to any individual.” Even the Unitarian Universalist Association offers suggestions on how to convert a building’s restrooms to accommodate gender neutral bathrooms.
Far more problematic are the recent state legislatures tackling “bathroom bills” that would enact dangerous rules requiring students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their sex at birth. One such bill was vetoed last week by South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard. A similar bill in Tennessee being opposed by transgender rights groups would require public school and university students to “use student restroom and locker room facilities that are assigned for use by persons of the same sex as the sex indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.”
As author Ivan Coyote explained the issue in a 2015 TEDx Vancouver talk on the urgency of gender-neutral bathrooms to protect the safety of transgender people, “As a trans person who doesn’t fit neatly into the gender binary, if I could change the world tomorrow to make it easier for me to navigate, the very first thing I would do is blink and create single stall, gender-neutral bathrooms in public places … Today as a trans person, public bathrooms and change rooms are where I am most likely to be questioned or harassed. I’ve often been verbally attacked behind their doors. I’ve been hauled out by security guards with my pants still halfway pulled up. I’ve been stared at, screamed at, whispered about, and one time I got smacked in the face by a little old lady’s purse that from the looks of the shiner I took home that day I am pretty certain contained at least 70 dollars of rolled up small change and a large hard candy collection.”
While it’s becoming more common to hear about public buildings, such as Boston’s City Hall and the White House, creating gender-neutral restrooms, what’s remarkable about the high school activism is how students are advocating on their own behalf to each other and the powers that be, explaining what’s become a political hot-button issue in ways that are simple, straightforward and heartfelt. They are able to cut to the core of why they’re petitioning for these changes and how it directly impacts the learning environment of their peers.
In late 2015, Jake Hershman, a senior and co-president of the Gay Straight Alliance at Cherry Hill East in New Jersey, explained his successful petition to get the school to install a gender-neutral bathroom by saying, “Right now people who are gender-neutral are using the nurse’s bathroom on the far side of the school because they face harassment in the bathrooms or feel uncomfortable using it. The nurse’s bathroom is where people throw up and things like that and is not very clean and far away from the classes. The gender-neutral bathroom gives them a better option because it is close to their classes and is harassment-free.”
As the Sandee High School writer put it, “Once we start talking about the issue, most students understand and want to support it. We have also posted flyers around the campus with a campaign slogan saying, ‘It’s just a toilet!’ to get students thinking and start critical conversations.”
However, gender-neutral restrooms are not the solution for all students, as evidenced by the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender Gloucester, Virginia, high school student, who’s appealing a court that denied him the right to use the boys' bathroom. He had done so without incident for two months, but following complaints from parents, the school then denied him access to the boys' bathroom. Grimm told the Washington Post, “I feel humiliated and dysphoric every time I’m forced to use a separate facility.” His case is now being argued by the ACLU, and received support from a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice.
As Grimm explained it in a 2014 article on the ACLU’s website, “my school board voted on a discriminatory policy that restricts use of male and female facilities to those of a corresponding biological sex. That night, I was promised access to unisex restrooms starting the following day. They were not actually opened until several days later. The school board may think they solved the problem, but being offered a unisex bathroom still singles me out from other students since I'm the only one required to use it.
I am boy, and it is important to me to live life like other boys do, including using the boys' bathroom.”
It’s worth noting that Grimm has emphasized that it was not his fellow students causing him distress over his bathroom options, but parents and the school administration that chose to kowtow to them. That seems to be a sign that the majority of his peers have no problem with him going about his bathroom business as he sees fit; it’s those who aren’t in school with him who are attempting to impose their own prejudicial notions on him, despite his explanations of the mental anguish their decision has meant for him.
While what Grimm is seeking — the ability to use the restroom of his gender, rather than a gender-neutral one — differs from what many of his peers are fighting for, what they have in common is their outspokenness in their pursuit of justice. Let’s hope that by the time these now-students are in charge of running things, allowing students access to safe, accessible bathrooms regardless of gender is par for the course.