Students around campus looking for restrooms may have noticed a change in signage: many of the “men’s” and “women’s” signs that previously adorned public restroom doors have been removed. In many cases, they have been replaced with a sign declaring that the bathroom has been claimed as a gender-neutral space.
The gendered signs have been removed by a group of anonymous students acting on behalf of the trans* community at the University. Though there are officially gender-neutral bathrooms in specific locations around campus, the group believes that they are not sufficiently available and do not meet the needs of trans* students.
Haley Weaver ’14, who supports the student action, believes that trans* people deserve the same bathroom access as those who are cisgendered.
“This issue isn’t just a matter of people’s comfort and what trans* students want,” Weaver said. “It’s very seriously a systemic problem in the country in general that trans* people are at much higher risk for urinary tract infections and kidney infections, and all these sorts of issues that come from not having convenient bathrooms.”
The activists believe that in addition to easing health concerns, having all bathrooms on campus be gender neutral will make trans* students feel more comfortable in the bathrooms. They also hope that it might decrease the chance of violence or harassment these students may face if they enter a bathroom that does not align with their biological sex.
An anonymous student supporter of the activism said that having gender neutral bathrooms makes them feel more accepted on campus.
“When I used to use ‘men’s’ bathrooms, I felt silenced in a way that tried to disappear my sense of myself as being a gender-nonconforming person,” they said. “Already that was a violence that was incurred every day. But now when I enter a bathroom that has urinals in it that may still be mostly frequented by men, I feel less like I have to fit into the singular category of ‘man’ to enter into such a space.”
In several buildings, such as the Public Affairs Center and the Freeman Athletic Center, unknown faculty and staff have replaced the gendered signs or put up paper signs to gender the bathrooms in their stead. Weaver found the replaced gender signs to be a stronger statement of trans*phobic feelings than the original gendered bathroom system.
“The replacing of the single-gender signs… I found that really upsetting on a personal level,” she said. “Obviously these bathrooms were already upsetting to people, but taking down the all-gender signs and putting back up these paper signs is very specifically saying, ‘No, we don’t want people of all genders here.’ That was a more violent action than having the single-gender signs in the first place.”
The University has not issued an official statement regarding the vandalism of gendered bathroom signs; however, according to Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Rick Culliton, some students may face Student Judicial Board (SJB) hearings as a result of their actions.
“My understanding is that some students who were involved with tearing down the original signs were identified and physical plant is assessing what the actual the cost of the damage and sign replacement is,” Culliton wrote in an email to The Argus. “Those reports when completed will be reviewed by the SJB to determine what charges may be warranted.”
Interim Director of Public Safety (PSafe) Tony Bostick described PSafe’s response to the incidents. While PSafe did not take any direct action, officers did respond to reports of vandalism.
“We were involved when people contacted us regarding the signs disappearing,” Bostick said. “People were asking what was going on and there was some confusion over the use of the bathrooms…. Our main concern was the vandalism…. We addressed that and the other part of it is being addressed by the dean’s office.”
Another anonymous student involved in the activism has been in conversation with several administrators and is hopeful that, whatever the outcome, changes will be made to the University’s gendered policy.
“The bathrooms have already been de-gendered” ze said. “It seems kind of backwards to re-gender them at this point. Whatever happens, they’re not going to just replace [the system as it was].”
However, not all students are comfortable with the newly de-gendered bathrooms on campus. In a thread on WesACB (Anonymous Confession Board), multiple anonymous students have expressed discomfort sharing bathrooms with students of the opposite sex. Students also expressed concern for students whose religion forbids them from sharing these spaces with people who are not of their biological sex, as well as for survivors of sexual assault.
“I feel like it would be really awkward for girls and guys,” said Peter Cornillie ’15. “Nothing against the idea of gender equality, but I feel like there are some spaces where we don’t want to see the other party, and that’s one of them.”
Other students are comfortable with the idea of gender neutral bathrooms, but believe that both gendered and ungendered spaces should be available.
“I think it’s a great initiative and I definitely agree with the idea, but I don’t necessarily agree with the fact that it’s being imposed in buildings like Olin and Usdan, where people from outside of Wesleyan come in and they might feel uncomfortable with the idea of gender neutral bathrooms,” said an anonymous student. “But, otherwise, campus wide, all the student facilities I think would be completely fine.”
Another anonymous student said that they believe that many of the bathrooms are still functioning as gendered, but that they are now at least a more accepting place for trans* students.
“The way that spaces change in their gendered quality takes time because the gendered spaces really are built out of every body that goes into those spaces and interacts with those spaces,” they said. “Even if the official signage changes, there’s still going to be a lot of de facto binary gendered spaces. I think that’s something that will change over time as people forget and change their habits…. But taking away the signs, even if the bathroom is still functioning as a binary-gendered space, does kind of grate away at the authority that a cis-person will have to police which genders enter those spaces.”
Pending the return of gender signs or a statement from the University, unsigned bathrooms on campus are functioning as gender neutral. The Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEF) are holding an open forum on the topic of all-gender bathrooms on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
An anonymous student asserted that they hope the University will not make an effort to re-gender the bathrooms and will change the policy to make all bathrooms gender-neutral.
“A lot of people here are completely unaware of how gender-binary bathrooms harm and marginalize decent populations of the school,” they said. “But I think that [the] administration wants to protect their image and there’s also some sympathy there. So I do think that [the policy of gender binary bathrooms] will change, but we’re not going to wait for it.”