Grinnell (Iowa) College has gender neutral housing as an option for students living in dorms. This restroom sign is found on campus and is common in public buildings everywhere. In gender neutral housing areas on campus all bathrooms are gender neutral and shared. This type of sign is not up in the Grinnell dorms, but the sign is illustrative of the concept.
To a transgender person, even the seemingly innocuous act of going to the restroom comes with difficulty.
“Bathrooms are one of the worst places to go for transgender people,” says Mal Meyer, a student at Emerson College in Boston and the vice president for Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians and Everyone.
A new proposal passed by the California Legislature this week — which awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature — would give transgender high school students the right to choose their prospective bathroom and locker room. This comes on the heels of a recent groundbreaking decision by the Colorado Rights Division, which ruled in favor of a 6-year-old transgender girl’s right to use the restroom of the gender she identified with.
Meyer came out as transgender male — meaning he was assigned female at birth — to his friends last August. Unlike the Colorado case, he says that people at his school were very accepting.
Even though his friends knew, Meyer says he didn’t want everyone to know. This became an issue when he had to type in his student ID card information, which he adds “would out me” every time.
This prompted Emerson’s LGBTQ student director to contact him and work with him to change the school’s policy that required a student’s birth name be used on his or her ID card. As a result, “You no longer have to change your legal name in order to change your name on your ID,” says Meyer.
Deanna Hurlbert, assistant director at Michigan State University’s LGBT resource center, says a lot of anxiety experienced by transgender students comes with “accessing physical spaces that are really gendered.”
Beyond choosing which restroom to use, Hurlbert says students come to her with a range of questions: Which group should they choose if a class breaks into male/female discussion groups, who will they room with in college if dorms are divided, how do they go about telling someone they want to date — or have been dating — that they’re not biologically who that person thinks they are?
Transgender students face a multitude of adversity, including being denied admission into college. When Calliope Wong, a transgender female, applied to a private women’s college, she was denied because her Free Application for Student Aid (FASFA) identified her as male.
The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill started a pilot program for “gender-neutral housing” and now faces legislative opposition that would prohibit it. Four students who had opted into the program could be forced to find alternative housing should the bill become law.
At Newcastle College in England, a transgender student recently started a campaign to convince the school to install gender-neutral toilets to create that “comfortable space for everyone.
“If I were to go into the female bathroom, I’d probably get slammed with a lawsuit because people would be like, ‘You can’t be a guy in the bathroom,’ but then I go to the men’s bathroom and people are like, ‘Why is there a girl in here?’ It’s always going to be harder for the transgender person,” says Meyer.
However, some students, including Thomas Gentle, a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Haedan Eagar, a senior at Georgia State University, express reservations or concerns with the bathroom quandary.
“I’m all for equality and radical thinking, but for some reason our country, and our generation especially, seems to be under the notion that your rights end where my feelings begin,” Gentle says. “You have a right to privacy until I say that, ‘I wish I was a woman.’ At that point in time, I don’t give a damn how you feel about your privacy, I’m going to file for legislative action and possibly even sue if I don’t get my way.”
Meyer says that most people believe it’s harder on them to come to terms with a transgender person using their bathroom when the reality is the opposite.
“The truth is, I can guarantee you, it is more uncomfortable for a transgender person to enter any kind of bathroom,” he adds. “When I go into the bathroom I am always worried that there will be a ton of other guys there and I’ll be too uncomfortable to use the bathroom.”
Gentle, who speaks with a stutter, compares his speech impediment to being “different,” but contends that even though he could seek disability advantages, he doesn’t think that it entitles him to “special privileges.”
“People are so wrapped up in self-indulgent, selfish behavior all the while claiming to be furthering human rights and well-being, but they are only breeding contempt,” says Gentle.
“The root of the problem is that I wouldn’t want to feel like a man was invading my privacy,” says Eagar. “I’m sure they wouldn’t, but that is what would make me feel wary or uncomfortable.”
Meyer thinks these claims to invasion of privacy are “completely wrong.” He says that he is always “worried about safety” and that it’s far more complicating and frustrating for a transgender person to use a restroom than others.
He adds that, “If someone doesn’t understand, they should try and get informed … Putting yourself out there and trying to get to know people of the transgender community is my best suggestion to somebody who doesn’t know about the trans community.”