U of A considers gender-neutral washrooms

It’s hard enough trying to find a washroom between classes, running cross-legged across campus, regretting that extra-large coffee, but it’s harder not knowing which one to use once you get there.

For transgender or gender-ambiguous people, this is an everyday reality, and a group of students at the University of Alberta are addressing it by lobbying for the creation of gender-neutral washrooms.

“Everyone, no matter what, deserves a safe place to go to the bathroom,” said Laura Crawford, a PhD student at the University of Alberta.

Crawford joined the campaign for gender-neutral washrooms because of the difficulty navigating gender-specific facilities on campus. She began a poster campaign on campus to increase awareness of gender politics and decrease the tendency to gender-police such spaces, laugh at people or give them funny looks.

“They think that people choose to be transgender,” explained Crawford. “But everyone chooses to express their gender in a different way. Why are some expressions accommodated and rewarded and some not? We’re all making choices and we all need to go to the bathroom.”

Crawford said there are two main concerns behind the issue of gender-neutral facilities. There is the practical, everyday concern of making non-designated facilities available. But there is also the concern about violence in washrooms, which, argued Crawford, happens more often than people think.

“Washrooms are fraught places in terms of sexual assault,” she said. “If a transgender man is somehow found out not to be quite our idea of a man he faces getting beat up or worse.”

Drawing on her personal experiences and those of other students and staff, Crawford outlined some of the problems transgender and gender-bending people face.

“Your day really becomes governed by the inaccessibility of washrooms,” said Crawford. “Say you arrive at school, everyone gets a large coffee, but from the very beginning you’re planing your day around bathrooms. ‘I can’t drink because I’ll be at the library later and people don’t know me there.’ Then there are the bad experiences you have in bathrooms and how those experiences bear on your life.”

Crawford insisted that the drive for non-designated bathrooms was not started because transgender and gender-ambiguous students are safe in one bathroom, but wish to use the other. Rather, they often feel unsafe in both.

U of A professors have also joined the gender-neutral washroom campaign.

“We need bathrooms that are accessible to everyone and presumably safe for everyone,” said U of A associate professor of sociology Sharon Rosenberg. “Anyone could use them: a father with a small child, a girl child for example, or someone who was feeling ill one day. It’s a bathroom that could be useful for everyone, not just transgender people, even though that’s how it came up.”

Still, Rosenberg does not want to downplay the need for the non-designated bathrooms among transgender people.

“A father who has a daughter with him one day, someone feeling sick one time, they can figure something out, but a transgender person will have to deal with it over and over again,” said Rosenberg. “It’s hard. It’s a constant problem.”

Rosenberg added that the idea of rethinking washrooms on campus is not unprecedented. McGill and Simon Fraser universities already have some gender-neutral washrooms on campus and many disabled washrooms are gender-neutral. However, Rosenberg does not advocate that single-stall washrooms, such as those set aside for disabled students, stand in for gender-neutral washrooms.

Resistance to gender-neutral bathrooms may stem from unfamiliarity with the problems faced by transgender or gender-ambiguous students and staff, or from the idea that all bathrooms on campus would become gender-neutral, noted Rosenberg.

“If you just automatically go to a bathroom you don’t think about problems like, ‘Am I safe in this bathroom?,’ ‘Can I use this bathroom?,’ ‘Will I get out of this bathroom alive?'” explained Rosenberg. “The issue has to be brought to people who don’t worry about it or give it a second thought. We aren’t saying all bathrooms should be gender-neutral. There will still be gender-designated bathrooms. People have a choice.”

Crawford agreed.

“This isn’t about forcing anything on anyone, but giving choice and deconstructing the binary system of gender,” said Crawford.

So far, the U of A administration has not acted on the issue.

U of A Students’ Union president Samantha Power said the SU is willing to consider the idea, though she cautioned the proposal was still in its preliminary stages and she has not seen any concrete plans.

“We’re always open to ideas on how to make the campus more inclusive,” said Power. “We’re more than willing to help these interested parties through the governance process, which can be quite complicated. We’re for any way, any physical representation, that says people are welcome and they can work here.”

The University of Calgary however, has not seen a similar campaign in its halls–or stalls.

“We have not heard of any campaigns for gender-neutral washrooms at the U of C,” said U of C SU president Emily Wyatt. “We actually do have a gender-neutral washroom in Mac Hall behind the Stör, so if there are students who wish to use a gender-neutral washroom, they do have that option.”

Wyatt said the SU would be open to students who wish to bring forward similar proposals.

U of A administration would not comment on gender-neutral washrooms until plans are more finalized.

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