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Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Debate Comes Down To Respect

03/09/2017 12:30 EST | Updated 03/09/2017 12:30 EST

How often do you think about going to the restroom? Other than the usual "Oh geeze, I have to go!" That's probably the extent of it, right?

Using the restroom is a basic human need. It doesn't matter if you're Justin Bieber or Oprah. We all use the restroom.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy for everyone to use a public restroom. For transgender, intersex or gender nonconforming individuals, the restroom or change room can be a place of anxiety and fear. Imagine being so anxious about entering the restroom that you prefer not to leave your house. That's terrible, right?

gender neutral bathroom

(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

What does it mean to be transgender/intersex/gender nonconforming?

Transgender -- a person whose gender identity does not correspond with their birth sex.

Intersex -- a person born with reproductive anatomy that does not conform to what is understood as male or female.

Gender nonconforming -- person who does not follow society's ideas of how they should look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth.

How many people are transgender in the U.S.? It's difficult to know. Discrimination and fear prevent many transgender people from coming forward. In 2016, the University of California-Los Angeles Williams Institute found that there are about 1.4 million transgender people in the U.S., which equates to roughly 0.6 per cent of the adult population. In 2014, of that 1.4 million, 41 per cent of transgender or gender nonconforming people have attempted suicide. That is a staggering rate.

During my transition, I was approached in both the male and female restrooms, even at LGBTQ establishments, and was told that I do not belong there.

Though you may see that many states have laws and ordinances that protect from discrimination based on sex, age, religion, disability or race, not many states include protection from discrimination based on gender identity. Gender identity is the central issue to transgender and gender nonconforming people. According to GLAAD, existing LGBTQ laws protect only 48 per cent of the U.S. population.

The Obama administration introduced Title IX to protects the right of transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration rescinded Title IX. Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that the issue is best solved at the state and local level, and that "[s]chools, communities, and families can find -- and in many cases have found -- solutions that protect all students."


The problem with the statement is that it implies other students need protection from transgender students. This is troubling when statistics demonstrate that transgender students are susceptible to bullying and are at an extremely high risk for self-harm.

Transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex people are not sexual deviants. The rest of the student population does not need protection from them. This line of thinking creates unnecessary fear at the thought of encountering a transgender or gender nonconforming person in a public restroom.

I went to the University of Toronto, University College in Ontario, Canada. I graduated in 2008. The restrooms at University College were gender neutral. At the time, I did not understand how progressive that was. I and do not recall a single person having any kind of issue in the restroom. In fact, as a result of the restrooms being gender neutral, I found that all genders regarded each other with heightened respect.

I moved from Toronto to California to attend law school, and settled in Long Beach. Though Long Beach is a very progressive city for LGBTQ people, I find that it's not as accessible and comfortable for transgender people. For example, many local bars and venues that I frequent have designated "male" and "female" restrooms. In the men's restroom, there are urinals, but only a toilet in the middle of the floor with no stall and virtually no privacy. I have found that the lack of stall in a men's restroom is common in establishments across North America.

gender neutral bathroom

Students walk past a protest sign on a bathroom which helped lobby for the first gender-neutral restroom in a Los Angeles high school, April 18, 2016. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

During my transition, I was approached in both the male and female restrooms, even at LGBTQ establishments, and was told that I do not belong there (and I am being polite -- the terms used were not). I know many other transgender people who have been approached or assaulted in the restroom. In fact, a paper by the Williams Institute found that in Washington, D.C., 70 per cent of transgender people surveyed reported being verbally harassed, physically assaulted or denied access entirely.

What are my options when I need to use the restroom in an establishment that designates a "male" and "female" space? I can use the women's restroom (which does not go over well, considering I have a full beard); use the men's restroom (with frequently no stall and risk being approached or assaulted because my genitalia is different); hold it and not go; or leave and patronize another establishment.

As history has shown us, "a separate but equal solution" is not equal.

And I'm a grown adult. I cannot imagine the range of emotions a child would go through in a similar situation at school.

The reversal of Title IX by the Trump administration is particularly despicable because Title IX was meant to protect CHILDREN of a marginalized group. The reversal creates a separation between transgender, intersex and nonconforming people and the rest of the population, and implies that they are not worthy of the very basic protection of being able to use the restroom or change room that aligns with their gender identity.

It's important to instill in children a general respect for others and to teach them that difference should be celebrated and not feared.

Some have suggested the creation of a third bathroom. A third "all-gender" bathroom is not an appropriate solution. As history has shown us, "a separate but equal solution" is not equal. Either eliminate the male/female designation or simply allow people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

HOW TO HELP:

Be a buddy to a trans person! Make sure that they exit the restroom safely.

Contact your local government and local establishments. If you own an establishment, put up an LGBTQ safe space sign:

http://www.hrc.org/resources/establishing-an-allies-safe-zone-program

Use the app Refuge Restrooms to mark safe bathrooms for transgender people:

http://www.refugerestrooms.org/about

Donate to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund:

http://www.transgenderlegal.org

Donate to the Transgender Crisis Hot Line:

https://www.translifeline.org

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