Everyone Deserves a Safe Space to Pee

AK Bennett and Ginger Grimes
J.D. Candidates 2014 and 2015, UCI Law

I’m standing at the sink, washing my hands, worrying about the pages I forgot to read for class that day.  A woman walks in to the bathroom, sees me standing there, and our eyes make contact.  She startles, makes a face that tells me she thinks she’s just made a huge mistake, and quickly exits the bathroom.  I chuckle to myself and count 3…2…1.  Cue re-enter.  Woman realizes that she didn’t walk into the men’s room, as she thought, comes back into the women’s bathroom, and makes a beeline for the stall so she doesn’t have to make eye contact with me.  This is just a day in the life of a biologically-female, gender non-conforming person who has to use the women’s restroom.  We, in the genderqueer community, call it “getting Sir’d.”  Sometimes women start yelling at me when I enter.  Sometimes small children start loudly asking why there’s a boy in the girls’ bathroom.  Although these encounters are far from pleasant, they seem to be a safer alternative than using the men’s room.  I am used to bathroom panic, but hopefully one day in the near future, people like me won’t have to decide which restroom will likely yield the least amount of conflict.

Gender-nonspecific (or even unisex) bathrooms (referred to here as Gender Neutral Bathrooms, or GNBs) are an example of gendered thinking and sexual politics that have begun to change over the last few years.  As awareness around transgender issues expands, public institutions such as schools (and even entire religious organizations, like the Unitarian Church) have begun to shift away from unisex, multi-stall facilities to those that allow greater flexibility for folks whose gender identity doesn’t fit on a pictorial bathroom sign.

The California legislature has already made moves towards a more expansive view of gender identity.  Last August, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 1266, legislation that would have allowed the very small number of children who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth to join the sports team affiliated with their preferred gender and use the bathroom they felt most comfortable using.  Supporters of the bill said it would help protect young students from bullying and mental abuse.  The bill was supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2014.  Last month, however, opponents (led by a group called Privacy for All Students) of the new state law—which they have termed the “co-ed bathroom bill” or the “choose-your-gender law”—collected enough signatures to qualify a referendum that would repeal this law.  Over 619,000 signatures were turned in, despite needing only 505,000 validated to place it on the ballot in November (http://www.wnd.com/2014/01/critics-of-california-bathroom-bill-win-round).

Opponents of AB 1266 say it will impact the safety of non-transgendered students.  The Privacy for All Students website criticizes AB 1266, stating, “[b]ecause of the lack of requirements [in the bill], some teens and young adults will undoubtedly game the law” (http://privacyforallstudents.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-ab-1266-referendum/ ).”  But LAUSD’s Judy Chiasson, who helped craft the policy, said that “[i]f somebody is worried about safety in the bathroom or appropriate behavior in the bathroom, I think that looking to our transgender children as the possible risk is very misdirected. […] If anything, they are going to be the target of misconduct, not the perpetrator.” (http://www.npr.org/2013/12/18/255185949/opponents-to-challenge-calif-school-act).

On the other side of the country, the Maine Supreme Court ruled last month that a school violated the rights of a transgender student named Susan, who has identified as female since the age of two and has lived exclusively as a girl since the fourth grade, by reversing its decision to let her use the girls’ bathroom, which she had been using since the third grade.  Why did the school change its policy and revoke the trans student’s bathroom choices?  When Susan began the fifth-grade, a cisgendered (when gender identity agrees with the sex a person was assigned at birth) male student also demanded to use the girls’ restroom.  The court said that the school’s “later decision to ban Susan from the girls’ bathroom, based not on a determination that there had been some change in Susan’s status but on others’ complaints about the school’s well-considered decision, constituted discrimination based on Susan’s sexual orientation.”  We won’t address the flaws in the Maine Supreme Court’s reasoning that transgendered identity is an issue of sexual orientation, but will still consider this a win for transgender students everywhere.  (http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/01/30/3230861/maine-transgender-students/).

We hope these discussions will begin here at UCI Law.  UCI Law is in the process of designing its new campus, a new physical space to house the Law School of the 21st Century.  A critical part of this project will be to provide GNBs for students, faculty, and staff.  In so doing, UCI Law will join the city of Philadelphia and dozens of other universities that offer safe restrooms for those who do not feel at home in a men’s or a women’s room.  However, GNBs are not just for transgender or gender non-conforming folks.  They also provide, among other benefits:

  • Increased privacy for parents with small children;
  • Safe spaces for nursing mothers;
  • Increased privacy for multi-stall restrooms with a proposal for floor to ceiling doors on individual stalls; and
  • Increased space for students who need more physical accommodations, such as space for maneuvering wheel chairs.

Most of us never think about which bathroom we walk into—there’s no anxiety surrounding the now-subconscious choice to use the men’s or women’s restroom.  But it is up to us—the Law School of the 21st Century—to create the safe space we have created for other minority identities.  We need to be a leader for other law schools by calling into question rules to which we too often acquiesce.  By giving up a little bit from our own comfort zones, we can make an immeasurable difference in someone else’s comfort and continue our tradition of creating an inclusive, nurturing community.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns about the addition of a GNB to the law school, we invite you to join us in an open forum on March 11 at lunch in EDU 1111.