On Tuesday, Nov. 5, approximately 65 students attended an open forum on gender-neutral bathrooms and trans* activism. The forum was hosted by Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEF), Wesleying, Open House, and QueerWes. The discussion was facilitated by WesDEF members Mariama Eversley ’14 and Leah Bakely ’16.
The conversation was organized in response to trans* activism by members of a group called Pissed Off Trans* People who removed gendered bathroom signs from several locations around campus. They put out a manifesto that called attention to what some students perceive as a lack of accessible gender-neutral bathroom options on campus and argued that gendered bathrooms enforce the invisibility of trans* people on campus.
The forum provided a confidential, safe space for students to discuss considerations, fears, and attitudes on the recent controversy surrounding the degendering of restrooms. All students quoted, except for the facilitators, wished to remain anonymous.
Many students at the forum expressed that the gender segregation of bathrooms is a serious issue on campus, and they appreciated the attention that it has recently received.
“This issue [of gender-neutral bathrooms] needed to come up,” one student said. “Vandalism was the only way for it to come up, and even though I use the women’s restroom and no one’s given me trouble, I’m always terrified going to the bathroom, and that’s just not fun.”
Agreeing with this position, another student noted that if a trans* student uses a gendered bathroom three times a day, those are three times in a day that the individual is confronted with thinking about gender.
In addition to noting the importance of discussing trans* issues with respect to bathroom use, students also discussed the specific actions and thought-process behind the decision to disinguish bathroom signs by gender. One student asked whether the administration was approached before the gender-neutral bathroom signs were put up.
“It was a deliberate choice to not consult the administration before taking direct action, largely because of skepticism confirmed by lived experienced that administrators and deans have to wade through and project so much diversity-accepting, allied-rhetoric as an obligation,” said one of the activists in response. “Behind that, [there] often lies an indifference of the needs of different minority groups on campus.”
Students who have been involved with degendering restrooms also said that in some locations, new plaques denoting gender have been placed outside the bathrooms.
A student worker at Usdan said that over Homecoming weekend he saw a grandmother walk into what used to be considered the male restroom when males were in there, and she came out looking scandalized. He voiced his opinion that in public places where non-students can linger, such as Usdan, this shock is unnecessary.
Another point of discussion was whether sexual violence is a legitimate reason for keeping bathrooms separated by gender. This question led to a dialogue concerning rape culture at Wesleyan. Students shared personal stories to convey their points.
“I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I feel very uncomfortable having the only bathrooms available be gender-neutral,” one student said. “I feel like I and other sexual assault survivors should have an option with only women.”
Another student responded by explaining that this point assumes that cisgendered people are the only ones being sexually assaulted, and always by someone of the opposite gender.
“I identify as a woman, and I was assaulted by a woman,” she said. “Having binary-gendered bathrooms does not address my concerns. There are lots of public spaces that are not binary-gendered that we learn to deal with on a regular basis, such as an empty hallway when a guy walks by.”
Following an inquiry about the current number of gender-neutral bathrooms at the University, one student stated that there are nine gender-neutral bathrooms in Usdan, but ze noted that few students are aware of the location of these bathrooms. A student also noted that there are seven spaces on campus without any gender-neutral bathrooms, including Downey House, Olin Library, Van Vleck Observatory, and buildings in the Center for the Arts.
“It is ridiculous that Wesleyan puts themselves as so accommodating and progressive, and we pay so much money, but still we do not have enough accessible gender-neutral bathrooms,” a student said.
To conclude the forum, Eversley and Bakely asked the audience to discuss possible next steps. Bakely acknowledged that total concurrence was unrealistic, but that further dialogue would be productive.
“We don’t expect a consensus on what action to take to emerge, but let’s talk about [it],” Bakely said.
Although students often came at the issue from very disparate points of view, many who spoke testified that what would make the most students feel safe and comfortable would be having a variety of bathroom options as opposed to unilaterally making bathrooms all separaed by gender or all gender-neutral.
One student noted that in other schools, such as Hampshire College, there are only gender-neutral bathrooms. Another suggested solution was to have an “E” on each door, the method that Oberlin College employs. The “E” stands for “Everyone.” If a student wanted to temporarily convert it into a men’s bathroom, they would rotate the “E” to an “M,” and if a student preferred a women’s bathroom, they would rotate it to a “W.” Finally, if a student wanted the bathroom to be a single-use room, they would turn it to a “3.”
The facilitators emphasized that this conversation should not stop with the conclusion of the forum.
“The second all of us leave this room, what can we do to try to make things different or better?” Bakely asked. “These discussions are very difficult to have, but that doesn’t mean we should stop having them. That’s something to remember.”