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Friday, April 12, 2024
Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center
Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center

Cardinal view: Campus bathrooms not user-friendly for all UW students

Imagine any university building. Find a bathroom. Now find a bathroom where you feel safe.

This is a relatively simple task for the majority of UW-Madison students. However, for students who do not identify within the confines of the male-female gender binary, it could be threatening, extremely anxiety-inducing and, at the very least, inconvenient.

For transgender, non-binary and queer students, some of the anxieties associated with having to choose which bathroom to use could be lessened by the university’s commitment to providing a wide array of bathroom options, including gender-neutral alternatives.

“Students are doing this constantly, running from class to class with no time at all to find the nearest available bathroom that isn’t sex-designated,” said Finn Enke, a professor of history and gender and women’s studies who identifies as transgender. Enke described a potential situation in which a non-binary student may spend all 15 minutes between classes searching for a restroom, causing them to be late to class or forgo using the bathroom.

According to Director of University Housing Jeff Novak, dining halls, residence halls and the majority of academic buildings are equipped with at least one gender-neutral bathroom, but many students are not aware of their existence and location, emphasizing the disconnect between university officials and students, and that visibility of these facilities needs to increase.

“The fact that students really believe that there are not enough bathrooms … that’s on the university’s part, not on the students’ part,” said UW-Madison sophomore and ASM Equity and Inclusion Committee Chair Mariam Coker. “If it’s not visible enough, UW just doesn’t care enough to tell people that [these bathrooms are] there or even saying that these students don’t exist to use [them] when that’s not the case at all.”

Another discrepancy exists in the perception of demand.

“I don’t think the demand is there enough right now that [a gender-neutral bathroom] is needed on every floor, but certainly making them very accessible and locations known is very important,” Novak said.

Enke noted the dissonance between the university’s intent and actions, stating, “You can have a non-discrimination policy, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t change the structures of the university, in ways that actually affirm the diversity that is potentially present as well as that is present.”

Since Enke arrived at UW-Madison in 2001, efforts to improve inclusivity have been made, such as providing the option to indicate one’s preferred pronouns and name within university administration.

Access to safe bathrooms is of utmost priority given the fact that a large portion of violence against non-binary people occurs in relation to bathroom use. Coker, who also sits on the Hate and Bias Committee, cited this as a recurring theme.

“[An incident] that comes up often is people who don’t know that these non-gendered bathrooms exist going to a gendered bathroom and then getting harassed,” Coker said. “It’s an issue because no one should be harassed for wanting to go to the bathroom.”

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Coker and Enke both noted that choosing a bathroom can be interpreted as making a statement about one’s gender identity.

“Because bathrooms are locations where people make a statement about their gender identity, the use of bathrooms can out people in different ways,” Enke said. “It can affirm their gender identity and it can also completely make it difficult to affirm their gender identity in any safe way at all.”

An infrastructure for gender-neutral bathrooms could be realized in a number of different ways, all of which carry benefits and dangers.

One option supported by Quasia Heru, a UW-Madison student who identifies as non-binary, is modeled after the restroom configuration at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where all campus bathrooms are classified by the presence or absence of a urinal, and thus are not necessarily reliant on the gender binary. Such a set-up allows potential for all bathrooms to be used by anyone.

Leigh Wilson, a UW-Madison graduate student who is also non-binary identifying, said this arrangement would be least discriminatory.

“If [the bathroom] is next to a women’s restroom and a men’s restroom you’re still asking someone to out themselves or other themselves so really the most equitable and accessible situation is to just un-gender all bathrooms,” Wilson said.

At the same time, Enke pointed out that ridding bathrooms of gender designation entirely could conflict with students who, for religious reasons, “cannot occupy the same space for those activities across sex and gender.”

Certainly, the administration has continued to work on creating a campus that is user-friendly for all of its students. Nevertheless, it is imperative to communicate openly and be proactive when considering all students’ identities.

“This is a systemic, institutionalized thing that we’re battling,” Heru said. “The goal is to not only change bathrooms in the university but change the way that people think in terms of binary to have people recognize that people exist all outside and within and without the binary.”

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