On Nov. 15, students paused for a little light reading, and for some, a little confused brow-furrowing, before walking into the bathrooms in the Library Café, Brower Student Center, Bliss Hall and the Social Sciences building.
On the doors to these bathrooms, laminated signs had been posted designating the facilities “Gender Inclusive.” An accompanying sign explained that going to the bathroom is an emotional experience for individuals uncomfortable in their designated gender, and that the College was thus promoting a “Gender Inclusive” bathroom campaign from Nov. 15-19 in honor of national Transgender Awareness Week.
The sign read: “For cisgendered individuals (people who are comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth) using the bathroom is just another one of life’s daily rituals. But for transgendered individuals (people whose gender identity varies from their biological sex) using the bathroom can be a scary and sometimes life-threatening experience.”
According to the sign, discrimination, harassment, and violence are all risks faced by transgendered individuals using gender-segregated bathrooms.
Senior women’s and gender studies major Justin Lemley, who spearheaded the effort with PRISM, the College’s LGBT support group, to get the College to support the campaign, knows this from personal experience.
Although Lemley identifies primarily with being male, Lemley identifies as “gender queer” rather than “transgender,” because he feels that “gender queer” offers him more gender ambiguity.
“It’s a state of not fully identifying with male or female,” he explained in a recent interview. “The campaign is very personal for me, because using the bathroom is an experience ridden with anxiety. … It feels scary for me to use the men’s bathroom, but it’s almost as scary for me to use the women’s bathroom because some people look at me and read me as male and some people look at me and read me as female and no matter what, I look out of place.”
“I’ve gone to the bathroom and heard women whispering ‘There’s a man in the bathroom.’ Or I get like straight, like judging, looks from strangers when I’m in a bathroom,” Lemley said.
While the idea that the need for gender-segregated bathrooms is a “social construct” may sound far-fetched to some students, it is interesting to note that the idea of gender-separated bathrooms first formed during the Victorian era.
According to law professor Terry S. Kogan in her article “Sex-Separation in Public Restrooms: Law, Architecture and Gender,” which appeared in the 2007 edition of the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, gender-segregated conditions entered the public sphere in order to alleviate the concerns of individuals fearful of the erosion of gender norms as women entered the workplace in greater numbers. In 1887 Massachusetts adopted the first law mandating that “water closets” in factories and other workplaces be separated by sex “to protect women.” By 1920, 43 states had followed suit.
During the past century, more and more individuals, transgender or not, have sought to transgress established gender norms. According to Lemley, “support” is key to helping these individuals find a comfortable way to express their identity, regardless of their sex.
Lemley’s concern with his own discomfort pales in comparison to his concern for the well-being of freshmen and other transgendered students who have not yet ‘come out.’ In the coming weeks, he plans on advocating for a few gender-inclusive bathrooms on campus on a “permanent basis.”
“People are convinced that there’s no transgender population on this campus and that’s just not true,” Lemley said. “I’ve become more and more comfortable with my surroundings but I can’t imagine what it’s like being a freshman going through this. More people will start coming out if they feel supported. A lot of people hide their gender identity in a lot of different ways. ”
However, Lemley noted that, as accepting as his friends, administrators and the staff at Residential Education have been with the campaign and his personal ‘coming out,’ not everyone on campus have been supportive of the effort. Signs have been torn down, and administrators have heard complaints. A heated discussion popped up on his Facebook wall following the launch of the campaign, in which female students voiced fears that allowing men into the bathroom might be a “catalyst for violence,” Lemley said.
While Lemley believes that there is a need to rationally address these issues — he consulted the campus Anti-Violence Initiative members for their opinion on how to alleviate these fears — he is also slightly frightened by the transphobic message sent by every torn-down sign.
“As much as I try to tell myself people are just afraid, I become afraid,” he said.
For now, however, despite some detractors on campus, the temporary gender-inclusive bathrooms have been a big relief for Lemley, and likely many silent others who feel like him.
“I’ve been using whatever bathroom’s closer and being like ‘whatever.’ The first time I went in one of these bathrooms with the signs up it was a sigh of relief,” he said with a smile. “I didn’t really expect it to feel that much different but it really did.”