Inclusive school bathrooms are the next step

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Jessica Gleason/Staff

The notion of a transgender identity is not unheard of anymore. Though we struggle as a society to grasp the difference between biological sex and gender, the trans community has, in recent years, come into the spotlight. Because of this, we now have a more acute awareness of transgender identity, as well as the ways in which our current societal infrastructure creates and perpetuates spaces that exclude people who don’t identify within the gender binary.  

California Assemblymember Phil Ting is making moves to eliminate stereotypical gender segregation in one of the most ordinary places: the public bathroom. On Jan. 28, Ting submitted a bill called AB 1732 that would require businesses or other places of public accommodation, namely government buildings, to delegate a single occupancy toilet facility as an all-gender restroom. These restrooms would be labeled “all gender” to make them gender neutral, allowing anyone regardless of gender identity or expression to utilize them. Ting claims that AB 1732 would make public bathrooms safer for transgender individuals and would allow them to participate more fully in public affairs.

Though AB 1732 would affect all of California, the bill’s passage will not radically reform Berkeley’s bathrooms. The movement for all-gender single-stall public bathrooms is not new to Berkeley. A Berkeley city ordinance, invoked in 2013, has already established what Ting’s bill is recommending, yet whether public establishments in Berkeley actually adhere to the ordinance is still a matter of concern. The passage of Ting’s proposal for all-gender single-stall restrooms could expedite and more seriously enforce a growing movement in Berkeley for transgender rights while also paving the way for more radical changes. The bill does not include anything in regards to public school bathrooms, but assuming AB 1732 successfully passes, implementing all gender stalls in our schools would be a worthwhile next step to take.

According to a 2011 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78 percent of transgender youth enrolled in kindergarten to 12th grade have experienced some type of harassment in school. 35 percent of this harassment was physical and 12 percent was sexual in nature. Cisgender experiences in the bathroom rarely, if ever, result in the same harrowing experiences that transgender and gender-nonconforming students endure. While adding a single-stall gender-neutral bathroom seems impractical for a large high school for instance, temporarily erasing the strict divide between male and female can go a long way in making transgender and gender nonconforming students feel more accepted and comfortable in a school environment. Trans-oriented bullying may not completely disappear, but providing at least one all gender bathroom facility, in addition to the sex-segregated bathrooms, is a worthwhile step.  

Since August 2015, the 11 elementary and three middle schools in the Berkeley Unified School District have all added at least one gender-neutral bathroom to their premises. In September 2015, Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco also successfully added a number of gender neutral bathrooms to their kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Besides being skeptical of gender fluidity, schools may hesitate to install all gender bathrooms because of financial concerns. But in relatively simple situations, all that is needed is a change in signage. Grant High School in Portland was able to alter the signage on its smaller bathrooms to denote six gender-neutral facilities for approximately $500 total. Grant High School is a large public high school, and its successful efforts indicate that smaller schools may be able to make similar changes for an even lesser cost.

The benefits of adding an all-gender bathroom in a high school raises the question of whether  changing the format of middle or elementary school bathrooms is also worth the effort. Understanding gender identity, let alone personal identity, is a complicated concept to grasp at a young age, and altering the school bathroom format may just perplex young students. But many Bay Area elementary and middle schools have already exposed their students to gender-neutral bathrooms. Since August 2015, the 11 elementary and three middle schools in the Berkeley Unified School District have all added at least one gender-neutral bathroom to their premises. In September 2015, Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco also successfully added a number of gender neutral bathrooms to their kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Though Miraloma Elementary might be making a statement beyond what its youngest students can understand, implementing an all-gender bathroom space, especially in a younger classroom, challenges the ingrained assumptions that gender is binary and that one has to identify completely with one gender over the other. In a society that is actively trying to break down gender stereotypes, allowing all-gender bathrooms in classrooms from kindergarten to high school can help destabilize our normal conception of gender and encourage more awareness and tolerance for diversity.

The measures these Berkeley and San Francisco schools have taken through their own volition are impressive and certainly reveal changes in how our society views gender. But a statewide policy change, such as the one that Ting is proposing, would make an even stronger statement about inclusion outside the gender binary. AB 1732 is a step that needs to be taken, but the bill’s passage doesn’t mark the end of conversation about public bathrooms. All-gender single-stall public bathrooms belong in public schools as well. Our schools are where students of all ages, the future of our society, learn how to respect difference and include people that do not fit in the molds in which society expects us to conform, and they should be exposed to today’s progressions as early as possible.