By Megan Northcote
Sept. 10, 2012. In early August, 58 restrooms on Appalachian State University’s campus received new signage, officially designating these facilities as single-use, gender neutral bathrooms.
Appalachian is part of a growing trend among college and university campuses nationwide to provide gender neutral restrooms with proper signage in on-campus buildings and residence halls.
Gender neutral restrooms align with Appalachian’s Equal Opportunity and Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation policies, which protect students, employees, and visitors from gender identity discrimination, Suzette Patterson, assistant director of education for Appalachian’s Multicultural Student Development Center, said.
Over the summer, three offices at Appalachian – The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Compliance (EDC), the Office of Multicultural Student Development and The Office of Planning, Design and Construction – collaborated to approve and install new gender neutral signs on existing private restroom doors on university buildings.
Patterson, who has chaired Appalachian’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Task Force since 2005, worked with the Task Force’s Bathroom and Signage subcommittee, comprised of students, faculty, and staff, to review the options for sign allocation and recommend sign placement to EDC, who paid for the sign installation.
“We [LGBT Task Force Bathroom and Signage Subcommittee] noticed inconsistencies across campus when it came to bathroom signage: some said men or women, some said private, some said staff, some said restroom. We thought simple, consistent signage would help everyone access a private restroom when they need it,” Patterson said.
Most of the 58 newly installed signs include an icon of both a male and female, while some handicap accessible single-use stalls also include a wheelchair symbol.
These new signs were installed in direct response to a piece of Appalachian’s Student Government Association (SGA) legislation (SB-040-028), passed in 2006, which called for all single-stall and private restrooms to be converted to gender neutral by removing gendered signs.
In fall 2006, members of TransACTION, an on-campus organization which raises awareness of transgender student needs, approached the Multicultural Student Development Center with reports of an Appalachian student, who was verbally and physically assaulted in a female restroom on campus, Susan King, EDC coordinator of education and outreach, said.
TransACTION then collaborated with SGA and the Multicultural Affairs committee to pass this initial single-use, gender neutral bathroom legislation.
Transgender students are one of many different communities these gender neutral facilities are intended to serve.
According to the LGBT center’s website, a transgender individual is a “broad term for all individuals whose gender anatomy and identity are incongruent. For example, a person who possesses a female gender anatomy, yet experiences their gender identity as male.”
Often times, transgender students do not feel comfortable using gender specific, multi-stall restrooms mainly because of potential harassment and discrimination from other students, Patterson said.
In a transgender focus group, the Gay Straight Alliance Network found the lack of safe bathrooms is the biggest problem that gender non-conforming students face.
Yet, gender neutral bathrooms serve anyone wanting a safe, welcoming restroom environment, not exclusively the transgender population, King said.
Thirty-two of these single-use bathrooms are accessible to individuals with disabilities or health conditions, meeting the specifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act, King said.
In addition, the gender neutral restrooms provide parents with an alternative when it comes to using public restrooms with opposite-sex children.
Also, the facilities would provide privacy for anyone managing a serious health condition.
“Consider the cancer patient going through chemotherapy who comes to work despite the debilitating nausea that can accompany treatments, or the woman in her first trimester of pregnancy for whom nausea may be a constant companion, or the individual who has recently had … surgery and must use external appliances to manage those conditions,” King said.
So far, King said, her office has only “received positive feedback [about the new signs] via emails from two transgender students and several faculty and staff members.”
To King’s knowledge, there has only been one negative report of two new signs in the Smith-Wright Hall on campus being altered shortly after installation. Paper signs were hung over these new signs, which read “Private Restroom. Reserved for: faculty/staff, Students with Disabilities, Transgendered student. Public Restroom on First Floor.”
Senior anthropology and film studies major Caroline Noel, a former president of TransACTION, is often surprised at how many people are uncomfortable with altering the cultural norm of separating male and female bathrooms and instead merging them into one bathroom.
“I understand that gender neutral bathrooms are a very complex issue concerning an individual’s privacy and safety, but culturally, many people still think the gender split needs to exist in public bathrooms,” Noel said. “It’s amazing how much a sign can reinforce a gender role.”
Senior biological anthropology major Hannah Brooks is also fully supportive of the gender neutral bathrooms.
“I think making people feel comfortable on campus should be a number one priority,” Brooks said. “We care about the safety of all students, but we don’t think about their mental health as much, and especially not that community [that the restrooms serve]. People tend to forget about it, but going to the bathroom can be scary for [the transgender community], and I think it’s ridiculous that there haven’t been measures taken until now. I’m glad they’re finally doing it.”
Brooks, who is a member of both the LGBT center and Appalachian’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA), said she would prefer if every building had a single-use, gender neutral bathroom on every floor. She especially thinks there needs to be more of these facilities in the academic buildings and in the Plemmons Student Union.
In the future, because of the success of these single-use, gender neutral bathrooms, King said all new buildings constructed on Appalachian’s campus will receive one or more single-use restrooms.
Stacy Sears, associate director for administration in University Housing, agrees that all newly renovated or constructed university residence halls will include gender neutral bathrooms.
“As we renovate halls and when we built Summit Hall, we’re very mindful in the planning to make sure we do include gender neutral facilities. [Gender neutral bathrooms] are a little easier to include when you build a suite-style residence hall; people don’t have to worry about sharing a shower facility with 30 people on the hall,” Sears said.
Renovation plans for Winkler Residence Hall next year will definitely include at least one single-use facility, Sears said.
Already, all of the university’s newly renovated halls, such as White, Lovill, Summit and Doughton, have single-use restrooms with a shower facility to accommodate disabled students, Sears said. In addition, she said all residence halls have at least one gender neutral bathroom.
“There is a population of students who are gender neutral or who are going through transitions. It gives them a place to go where they feel comfortable and don’t have to be conscious about being male or female,” Sears said.
A listing of all gender neutral bathrooms in all buildings on Appalachian’s campus, excluding residence halls, can be found here. The University Housing department is still in the process of identifying and mapping gender neutral restrooms in residence halls.