There are almost 400 buildings on the 936 acres covered by the University of Wisconsin. It is in these 400 buildings that students live, study, work, rehearse, research. And it is in these buildings that students, inevitably, use the bathroom.
Aside from their obvious functions, bathrooms also serve as a place to collect yourself prior to an exam, a place to reapply makeup or fix your hair, a place to splash water on your face during an all-night study session or a place to change clothes after a shift at work.
For students and faculty who are cisgender, or someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth, restrooms are a second thought — access and availability are guaranteed. For transgender or gender non-conforming students, both access and availability — as well as feelings of safety in the bathroom — are not promised.
A transgender person is one whose gender identity or expression is not aligned with the gender they were assigned at birth, while a gender non-conforming person is one whose gender expression differs from stereotypical expectations of the gender.
Of the 400 buildings on campus, approximately 60 have gender-neutral bathrooms. Typically, these are single-stall, locking facilities and are often far from the unisex bathrooms. Instead, they are found on separate floors, in the basement or in other less accessible spots in a building.
Take the Red Gym for example. An iconic building on campus, it is home to university offices and student centers. Hundreds of people access the building every day, both employees and students.
“Something I would ask every cisgender student is to make a list of how many gender-neutral bathrooms they can think of on campus. The list would be kind of short.”Rena Yehuda Newman, UW Junior
The Red Gym has three main floors, with only an old, slow elevator connecting them. On a good day, the elevator takes about two minutes to meander between floors. On a bad day, two minutes seems like the blink of an eye. While there are bathrooms on each floor, the only gender-neutral restroom is tucked away in a back corner of the first floor.
Compared to many buildings on campus that lack even one gender-neutral bathroom, the Red Gym is an improvement. But the existence of a single gender-neutral bathroom does not immediately signal equal accessibility.
A person looking to use this bathroom must jump through hoops to use the restroom — in this case, the hoops being a slow elevator and a trek through the halls of the Red Gym — that people who use gender-specific bathrooms do not have to jump through.
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In Wisconsin, hoops such as Assembly Bill 469 require public school bathrooms to be designated for exclusive use of students of one sex only. But the bill includes a clause allowing for a school board to provide reasonable accommodations for transgender students who wish to use a single-occupancy restroom.
In 2018, the Madison public school district pledged to include all-gender bathrooms in every public school. The school district also ended the practice of keeping the single-stall bathrooms locked, requiring students who wanted to use one to obtain the key from the front office. This effort is meant to normalize the use of the single-stall restrooms by any student, not just transgender students.
Though the Madison public school district’s pledge is promising for a more LGBTQ+-inclusive environment in K-12 schools, a study by UW communication arts professor Sara McKinnon and Maurice Gattis of University of Louisville found that there appears to be a disconnect between existing policies intended to protect transgender students and the knowledge of said policies among school employees and administrators.
“Even a lot of really well-intentioned educators have had to go through their own education about what it means to be a transgender or non-binary student,” Brian Juchems, co-director of the Gay-Straight Alliance for Safe Schools said.
McKinnon and Gattis interviewed 21 transgender and gender non-conforming students from Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Racine in what has been heralded as a “groundbreaking study” by transgender advocates for its level of detail and specificity.
Alongside this disconnect, the study found that a lack of access to gender-neutral or appropriate bathrooms and locker rooms remains a large problem in Wisconsin schools.
As Madison public schools have turned their attention to creating more inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ students, in part with new and improved bathroom usage policies and the inclusion of gender-neutral restrooms, so too has the focus shifted on the UW campus.
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In response to the Trump administration’s policy change regarding protections of transgender students under Title IX in 2017, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank co-penned a letter with university officials from Rutgers University and Princeton University to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expressing concern with the rollback of federal protections for transgender students on university campuses.
In addition to the letter, Blank issued a statement in support of the LGBTQ+ members of the UW community, in which the university administration wrote that “UW Madison welcomes, values and supports students, faculty and staff of all gender identities, including transgender, gender non-conforming, intersex and non-binary individuals.”
The university statement also outlined current efforts to make campus more safe, equal and inclusive for LGBTQ students.
Part of this effort has been the creation of a campus map, complete with documentation of known gender-neutral and ADA-accessible bathrooms.
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Letters, maps and statements, however, do not build new facilities or effect policy change. Though almost 400 buildings comprise campus, there are only around 60 that have at least one gender-neutral bathroom.
“We don’t have an actual number of [gender-neutral bathrooms] on campus, but there are buildings that we know [have them]. And we know that this [number] isn’t going to be complete, because it’s crowd-sourced,” Katherine Charek Briggs, assistant director of the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, said.
Rena Yehuda Newman is a junior at UW, and identifies as non-binary. They believe 60 gender-neutral bathrooms on campus is far too few, especially when it comes to fostering an environment conducive to learning and studying in campus buildings.
“I identify as non-binary, which means I’m neither a man nor a woman,” Newman said. “That ends up meaning that entering into gendered bathrooms on a personal level is uncomfortable and on a social level can expose me to harassment and violence. In general, the majority of campus buildings that are for classes are not fitted with gender-neutral bathrooms, including the more modern ones. The SoHE building’s bathrooms are really funky — they have bird noises in them — which would be cool if they were accessible.”
As someone who is studying history, Newman spends countless hours in the George L. Mosse Humanities Building.
For Newman, the building some students refer to only semi-jokingly as “riot-proof” and freshmen regard as immensely confusing is inaccessible for a different reason: There’s only one gender-neutral bathroom in the entire building.
“There’s only one gender-neutral bathroom, and that bathroom is located inside the history department office and is not advertised,” Newman said. “So if I wanted to go to the restroom and I couldn’t use the one in the history office, that would mean I would have to physically leave the building, go to the Elvehjem building or Memorial Union.”
Not only are campus buildings largely inaccessible to transgender and non-binary students, University Housing creates another hoop for these individuals to jump through.
According to University Housing policy, bathrooms may be designated as single or mixed-gender facilities within residence halls.
“Individuals should use bathrooms that correspond to their sex or gender identity, depending on which option they feel is safer, or utilize bathrooms that are designated gender-neutral/gender-inclusive,” the policy reads.
Brendon Dybdahl, a spokesperson with University Housing, reiterated this sentiment, adding that the housing assignment office works closely with students who contact them with questions regarding living in residence halls as LGBTQ+ individuals.
“We work to assign these students to an environment that will be comfortable for them,” Dybdahl said. “Students can be assigned by their identified gender rather than their biological gender if they prefer. Bathrooms on most resident floors are gender-specific. Trans students are encouraged to use the bathroom that is most comfortable for them.”
Dybdahl also highlighted newly constructed and renovated buildings in which gender-inclusive bathrooms have been added. Dejope, Leopold, Ogg and Smith residence halls all have separate gender-inclusive full bathrooms on each floor. Renovation plans for Witte Residence Hall, scheduled to be completed in August 2019, also include one gender-neutral full bathroom per floor.
While newly built or renovated residence halls are constructed to include gender-neutral bathrooms, Dybdahl said the older buildings or buildings that have not been renovated oftentimes only have gender-specific bathrooms on each floor.
Problems with progress
Progress toward a more inclusive and safe campus community has been slow moving.
In spring 2017, the Committee for LGBTQ People in the University developed a two-phase project which aims to create appropriate signage for bathrooms and craft a usage policy for gendered restrooms.
“[The policy came out of a] shared governance body … a taskforce from each of the four governance groups on campus: faculty, academic staff, university staff and students. I believe right now it’s kind of sitting in facilities planning and management, and they’ll be looking at logistics because they’re the ones that manage the buildings and renovations,” Kelly Krien, assistant staff director of the Associated Students of Madison, said.
To realize phase one of the project — providing appropriate signage for already existing bathrooms on campus — the manager of the building in question must be on board with the required space study. This normally requires the support of an administrator or high-ranking official in the building.
But it is nearly impossible for individual students to request a space study.
“What [the request] is essentially saying is, ‘If you do the space study and the study says that you’ll need to do construction, you’re committing money to that project,’” Briggs said. “So an individual student could not submit that request.”
Once a request is made, the space study itself has two phases. The first is a fixtures study, and is conducted by looking through old building blueprints, finding the restrooms, and counting every toilet, urinal and sink in each one, and how each is labeled.
“It is not easy,” Briggs said. “It takes forever.”
The second stage of the space study is called the occupancy study, which involves estimating how many people could use a particular building by counting the number of chairs and categorizing rooms by function.
“They use the fixture and occupancy studies and mash them together, and see if you’re allowed to take these other restrooms offline [and change their signage],” Briggs said.
“If a building chooses to relabel bathrooms as gender-neutral, those bathrooms become “offline” and, if the relabeling results in the total number of gender-specific restrooms falling below the number required by the international building code, the building is no longer up to code.”
These studies are not only time-consuming but also incredibly costly.
UW administration approved funding for the committee to hire outside agencies to conduct the space and occupancy studies for 50 of the 400 buildings on campus, but Briggs said funding ran out after just 32.
“It falls upon the department [to fund studies and update bathrooms], and this sets us up for a situation of the ‘have versus have-nots,’” Krien said. “The departments that can afford it are able to do these upgrades and renovations, but not all departments have that funding available.”
In addition to funding, departments or buildings wishing to update bathrooms must ensure that any renovations or construction meets the requirements of the international building code.
The international building code stipulates how many gender-specific bathrooms a building must have after considering its maximum occupancy. In other words, buildings do not have an incentive to include gender-neutral bathrooms because they do not count toward the overall bathroom total needed to meet code.
If a building chooses to relabel bathrooms as gender-neutral, those bathrooms become “offline” and, if the relabeling results in the total number of gender-specific restrooms falling below the number required by the international building code, the building is no longer up to code.
“I think the largest challenge through this process has just been logistical, it’s been a big learning curve,” Krien said. “There are international building codes and restrictions as far as what people cannot actually do in buildings. The fact that there’s hundreds of buildings on campus and nobody quite knows where the restrooms are [also makes it difficult].”
While the shared-governance committee is working on a usage policy, the second stage of the project proposed last spring, the policy remains in draft form. It is unclear when the policy will be approved.
“Advocates on the shared governance committee would like to see the policy approved as quickly as possible. This work should have been done a long time ago,” Briggs said. “We’re excited to get it rolling from the place we are, and, remembering that there are a lot of campuses who benchmarked this a long time ago, we know it’s the responsible thing to do.”
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With policies and renovations stalled by a lack of funding, building codes and university bureaucracy, Newman laments what they characterized as lackluster attempts at reform.
“I’ve seen sort of half-hearted gestures … making new restrooms or saying renovations are coming. We’re spending millions of dollars renovating sports facilities,” Newman said. “I just want a place I can go to the bathroom regularly, it’s not really that much to ask. So frankly, I think that hypothetically it’s something the administration says it cares about. I think if they were serious about it, there would have been changes made a long time ago.”
Safe and comfortable
Critics of gender-neutral bathrooms nationwide often bemoan the perceived safety hazards of allowing transgender or non-binary individuals to use the bathroom of their choice.
Newman argued that this critique ignores the reality of the situation: these individuals just want to use the restroom.
“People who are cisgender critics of creating multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms will say, ‘Well it might be less safe for people,’” Newman said. “There are sort of two ways I address that: one, there are a lot of other public spaces in which people of all genders are interacting. It also ignores the reality of same-gender violence that occurs in single-gender restrooms as well.”
Gender-neutral bathrooms, whether single stall or multi-stall, benefit everyone on campus and in the community. In a study conducted by Rutgers University, gender-neutral bathrooms were found to make other minority groups feel safer and more included at their organization, signaling fairness across identity dimensions.
Gender-neutral bathrooms also communicate to transgender and gender non-binary students and individuals they are welcome on campus.
“When we talk about what kind of impact that has on the psyche of a student, in terms of the physical institution and structures they’re exposed to each day telling them whether or not they feel welcome, institutional cultures and physical spaces really do have a lot to tell us about whether or not a student is wanted,” Newman said.
Released in 2017, the campus climate survey recorded student’s answers to numerous questions evaluating UW. The survey revealed that just 35 percent of transgender and non-binary students felt they belong on campus, compared to a 69 percent overall rate.
Fifty-five percent of transgender and non-binary students reported feeling safe on campus, compared to a 78 percent overall rate.
Thirty-three percent of transgender and non-binary students report experiencing incidents of hostile, harassing or intimidating behavior directed at them personally, compared to an 11 percent overall rate.
While numerous factors affect the overwhelmingly less positive responses recorded for transgender and non-binary students, Briggs identified two as particularly prominent.
“The reason I think there’s such a disparity … is that trans and non-binary students are met by both a social impact and a facilities impact. Not only are there social challenges in the classroom and with people on the street and being misgendered, but there’s all the facility pieces where if you don’t have somewhere to live you can’t be on campus, if you don’t have somewhere to use the restroom you can’t healthily be on campus,” Briggs said.
Gender-neutral bathrooms are also heralded as part of universal design, meaning that a building or an environment is constructed so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their identity, age, size, ability or disability.
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A large part of universal design, Briggs explained, is redundancy, or having a variety of ways to access facilities where everyone feels safe and comfortable in all buildings.
“Right now, there’s a disparity in who gets access to [facilities],” Briggs said. “So it could be folks with mobility devices, folks who are caretakers or have children, folks who need to change clothes … there’s a whole number of reasons why single-stall locking bathrooms meet the needs of different people.”
For the majority of cisgender students at UW, access to bathrooms is not the first thing that crosses their mind when entering a building for class or when choosing a residence hall freshman year. It probably doesn’t even make the top ten.
But everyone needs to go to the bathroom, and without consistent access to appropriate facilities, this becomes far more challenging.
As UW continues to work toward approving a usage policy and finding funding for renovations to work around the prohibitive international building code, transgender and non-binary individuals are left without consistency in access to appropriate facilities campus-wide.
“Something I would ask every cisgender student is to make a list of how many gender-neutral bathrooms they can think of on campus,” Newman said. “The list would be kind of short.”