As transgender issues have entered the forefront of American politics, the issue of public restrooms has been contested in courtrooms across the nation. Between 2013 and 2016, almost half of states made efforts to pass laws restricting transgender people’s access to single-gender facilities by their “biological sex,” often with public schools as the battlegrounds. With the debate over where transgender individuals should use the restroom becoming more and more heated, many public facilities have opted for the middle ground: gender-neutral bathrooms.
Bathroom bills — the most recent of which is the Kentucky School Privacy Act — and gender-neutral restrooms arose in response to widespread social anxiety over visibly trans people using gendered restrooms. While the courts argued with no verdict in sight, gender non-specific bathrooms were the easy solution. Rather than wholly accepting or rejecting transgender people, gender non-specific bathrooms create a third space where we can be ignored entirely. A bathroom that welcomes all genders eliminates the debate entirely.
The University of Michigan is one of the countless colleges now offering a gender-neutral bathroom option for its students. Currently, the Spectrum Center lists 102 “gender-inclusive” restrooms in campus buildings, not including those within the dorms themselves. The term “gender-inclusive,” however, is misleading. People of any gender can use them, that is true, but that doesn’t mean they are supposed to.
The issue: When anyone can use a facility, anyone will. This is how I find myself waiting for one of Alice Lloyd Hall’s two single-use gender-neutral bathrooms to become available each night. Unsurprisingly, with 520 students living in the building, I’m rarely fortunate enough to gain access to a restroom when I need it. And yet, I’m still luckier than the students in the many halls with no gender-inclusive showers or restrooms whatsoever. For most, these single-use restrooms are seen as a luxury. They’re private, they’re cleaner, they’re (typically) newer. But for transgender students — the people these restrooms are meant to accommodate — it’s often a matter of safety.
For transgender students who pass as their gender, not being able to use gender-inclusive restrooms isn’t an issue, but this isn’t always the case. Androgynous-looking or mid-transition trans people may look out-of-place in both male and female restrooms. The state of Michigan doesn’t have laws explicitly forcing transgender people into the bathroom of their assigned sex at birth, but because University housing cards only give students access to the restroom matching their legal gender, students aren’t always able to use the restroom they’d feel safer in. A student who looks like one gender (for instance, someone who is far along in transition but can’t get a legal gender change yet) is forced to use the bureaucratically-mandated restroom rather than the one their appearance implies, causing problems not just for the individual, but everyone involved. Whether or not people should feel threatened by the existence of trans people in gendered spaces, we know that they do. If cis people weren’t afraid of us, we would only have to deal with the discomfort of feeling out-of-place, not the fear of being treated as predators. Trans people do not want to make ourselves or others upset by using the “wrong” restroom, but we often aren’t given any other choice.
While individual incidents at the University have not been publicized, 21.3 percent of trans and genderqueer U-M students reported being a victim of nonconsensual sexual contact, surpassed only by undergraduate cisgender women at a rate of 26.9 percent. However, the same survey also found that only 42.1 percent of trans students thought campus officials would take a sexual misconduct report seriously, the lowest rate of any group, and a mere 23.5 percent expected an investigation of said misconduct would be fair (all other groups had rates over 40 percent). Perhaps most startling is the manner in which these assaults occur. When the results are broken up by the use of physical force, inability to consent or both, trans students are the only group that solely reported physical force as a tactic. Concurrently, an AAP study of transgender teens found that the risk of sexual assault was higher for students who had restricted restroom access at school. Public restrooms are far from the only reason trans students are being assaulted, but they are an undeniable factor in the trend. At the very least, restrooms serve as a venue for the act.
Gender-inclusive bathrooms are meant to be a safe haven for transgender students, but it’s this very inclusivity that often renders the spaces useless. They were designed to push trans people out of gendered bathrooms for the sake of cisgender society’s comfort — the safety of trans people was merely a fortunate byproduct. And, sure enough, these restrooms made to make cisgender people more comfortable are so often used by them out of a preference for privacy at the expense of their trans peers’ well-being.
Having access to safe restrooms is especially vital on college campuses because many students have no access to private restrooms. Those who live in the dorms almost invariably have to shower there, too. There is nowhere else for transgender students to go if their residence hall lacks a gender-neutral restroom, or if the few in their building are always occupied.
Creating safe restrooms for trans and genderqueer U-M students requires individual action as well as the implementation of large-scale change by the University. Trans students need a gender-neutral restroom option, regardless of which residence hall they live in. We need an appropriate number of restrooms for the size of the building, or gender-neutral bathrooms with stalls to accommodate more than one student at a time. However, these efforts will be useless unless cisgender students are willing to acknowledge why these changes are being made in the first place. It is easy to forget that restrooms labeled “gender-inclusive” have an intended audience, and it is even easier to ignore it when the privacy of a single-use room is so tempting. By thinking twice before taking advantage of a vacant restroom, you can make someone else’s day safer.
Ray Ajemian can be reached at email@example.com.