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Gender-neutral bathrooms signal change for colleges

Transgender students find comfort outside 'gendered spaces'
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Portland State University student Kirsten Keith, a transgender who identifies as a man, worked with the school's Queer Resource Center to bring the first gender-neutral bathroom to the campus.

Colleges are often the place movements for social change start. Now, the transformation is coming to bathrooms.

Portland State University said in late May that it would convert one multi-stall women's restroom on campus to a gender-neutral designation.

The move was designed to support transgender students.

Though there already are gender-neutral single-stall restrooms on campus, this restroom, on the fourth floor of Smith Memorial Student Union next to the Queer Resource Center, can be used simultaneously by people of different genders.

This makes Portland State the second school in Portland this year to create a multi-use gender-neutral restroom, possibly signaling a new trend.

The decision follows Reed College's move this spring to convert one restroom in each nonresidential building to gender-neutral, after students voted for the change last year. That policy applies only where there is more than one set of restrooms in a building. Most bathrooms in Reed's dorms already were gender neutral.

Easing discomfort

Though it might seem like an uncomfortable shift for some, advocates of the change say the bathroom walls are falling in the name of justice for transgender individuals.

Transgender describes people whose "gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth," according to the American Psychological Association. "Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of being male, female, or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics."

Single-sex bathrooms can be alienating to transgender individuals, who may fear bullying or judgment.

"A significant number of students on our campus don't feel like they have a safe place to use the restroom," says Cathlene McGraw of Portland State's Queer Resource Center. Though Portland State does not track statistics on the proportion of transgender students, she says the Queer Resource Center knows from the traffic it receives that it has "more trans students than any other Queer Resource Center in the state."

The bathroom also will be useful for people who require assistance from helpers of a different gender, McGraw says.

'Gendered spaces'

Transgender students at Portland State support the change.

"The restroom is notoriously an area that can be very traumatic" for anyone who doesn't fit society's expected gender norms, says Sabrina McCoy, a senior studying film production at Portland State.

McCoy, who was born with a male body and has felt "on an instinctive level" and since age 5 that something was different, has been living as a trans woman since 2006. She says that gendered bathrooms are "never 100 percent comfortable" for her.

"There's always a twinge of fear in the back of my head that someone is going to say something, someone is going to make a deal of it," McCoy says.

With gender-neutral restrooms, she says, "you're just concerned with doing what you need to do in the room, then you leave."

Kirsten Keith, a senior gender studies major at Portland State who identifies as a transgender man, says that he has "always thought about what bathroom I'm in."

The "gendered spaces" of traditional bathrooms are such a constant source of anxiety, he says, that without gender-free restrooms, he would often "go throughout the day without using the bathroom."

McCoy says some people have developed urinary tract infections and other health issues due to such restraint, rather than face anxiety or harassment.

Both students say that while Portland State has made a good first step, more can be done.

Growing trend

Portland State and Reed join University of Minnesota-Duluth, University of Southern California and Swarthmore College on a list of campuses nationwide that have instituted multi-use gender-neutral restrooms. Southern Oregon University has one wing of a residence hall designated gender-neutral, with the bathrooms there not designated by gender.

Diane Saunders, communications director for the Office of the Chancellor of the Oregon University System, supports the changes.

"It's something that most campuses will generally get to at some time," she says. "We're really thankful to the students for raising the issue."

Some colleges, such as University of Portland, do not plan to change.

"When we have worked with transgendered students over the years, we have found that our housing options have proven acceptable and provided the privacy students may require," says university spokesman Joe Kuffner.

The Catholic institution has two apartment-style halls with private bathrooms, as well as a select number of rooms in traditional residence halls that have separate bathrooms.

"There are no plans at this time to make changes to our facilities," Kuffner says.

Even advocates of the changes do not suggest that the movement seeks gender-neutral designation for all public restrooms. Reed College did not convert restrooms in buildings that only had one set of single-sex bathrooms, because some students might be uneasy about mixed restrooms.

"I'm sure there are people that don't feel comfortable being in a bathroom with someone of another gender," says Jacob Canter, a Reed junior who voted in favor of gender-neutral restrooms. "I don't think Reed is trying to impose one view of gender" on everyone, he says. Instead, it "wants to support all students."