Neutralizing the Gender Binary

Rachel Foster, Opinion Editor

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Think about the last time you went to the bathroom at school. It was probably dim, and it probably smelled bad, and there was probably toilet paper all over the floor. Maybe one of the soap dispensers was empty so you had to reach across the person next to you to get soap from the dispenser a few sinks over, or maybe there were no paper towels so, with a grimace, you wiped your hands on your pants. The experience likely wasn’t very pleasant. But it was safe, wasn’t it? For most of you. Most of you felt safe and accepted in that bathroom, as you should. Public bathrooms should be safe, comfortable spaces for everyone.

But they’re not.

For many students, the ideal of comfortable, accepting bathrooms isn’t a reality. They can’t feel comfortable in traditional, sex-segregated male or female bathrooms like the ones we have at school. Those bathrooms are very confining, and aren’t safe spaces for transgender and gender-nonconforming students that attend LHS.

As the transgender rights movement becomes more and more prevalent in the United States—TIME magazine calls it “America’s next civil rights frontier”—public places such as restaurants and schools have been pushed to be more inclusive of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

Often, this includes bathrooms. We’ve been taught that public bathrooms are strictly male and female, that you have to choose one and stick with it. It’s unthinkable to go into the bathroom that is not “yours,” even if “your” bathroom has a long line while the other is empty, unoccupied. For most, this is simply annoying. But for some, choosing which bathroom is “theirs” is nearly impossible.

Tracy Lunney, a Social Worker at LHS, says that choosing which bathroom to use is a huge stressor for transgender students. Some students, rather than force themselves to choose a bathroom, go to the nurse’s office to use the bathroom, the only gender-neutral bathroom in the school. Nurse Lisa Morgan says that she welcomes any and all students who choose to use the bathroom in her office and never asks the reason for it. Ultimately though, she believes that “[Transgender students] shouldn’t have to come here just to use the bathroom. They should have choices anywhere.”

While it’s true that students are able to use whichever bathroom they feel is “theirs,” this isn’t always a reality. Ideally, transgender boys, for example, are supposed to be able to use the men’s bathroom, but verbal and nonverbal harassment, as well as other social influences, could prevent them from being able to do so comfortably and safely.

And nonbinary or other gender-nonconforming students, as well as students whose gender expressions don’t coincide with stereotypical male and female gender expressions, may not be able to choose a bathroom, so have no choice but to go to the nurse’s office because they simply don’t know where else to go.

Lunney says that she has a few transgender and gender-nonconforming students who would like more options. They need inclusive spaces where they can feel safe and accepted, but, Lunney says, “We haven’t created that space yet.”

Yes, there’s the nurse’s office, but that’s not enough. Students who have classes on the third floor shouldn’t have to walk all the way down to the nurse’s office in order to use the bathroom without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. Says YouthResource, an LGTBQ+ activist website that is made by and for LGTBQ+ young people, “Everyone deserves equal access to public facilities. No one should have to fear violence or harassment as a result of entering these facilities.”

Having only one gender-neutral bathroom in the school isn’t “equal access.” Simply put, it’s discrimination. “Being able to safely use a public restroom isn’t a privilege – it is a right,” writes YouthResource.

The Dignity for All Students Act (also called the Dignity Act or, more simply, DASA) came into effect three years ago, in 2012. According to the website of New York State’s Education Department, DASA “seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying.” DASA mandates an end to discrimination in public schools, and though LHS is, admittedly, much more progressive than other schools and has made steps in that direction, we need more.

Any ideas like this one, ideas that confront and change a private space, “are not going to be easily accepted and are going to be scrutinized,” says Miriam Readling, an English teacher at LHS who teaches Gender Studies. “I think a lot of homophobia, transphobia, [really any] -phobia of anything that’s outside of a cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual person… those fears come up under the guise of weird logistical issues which people will put forth.”

Logistical issues such as the fear that gender-neutral bathrooms would allow men to assault women. Though assault by men is certainly something that women and girls fear (and, statistically, we have reason to fear it), Readling says, “If someone’s going to maliciously assault someone else in a bathroom just because it’s gender neutral, chances are that person would assault someone anyway. Just because there’s a gender-neutral bathroom, I don’t think it opens some door for more danger.”

Really the only result of having the option of gender-neutral bathrooms would be that transgender and gender-nonconforming students would feel less alienated and more comfortable at school, something that, as students, they deserve. What is a negative effect of inclusivity, other than transphobic and homophobic people being forced to confront their bigoted, unfounded fears? The fact is that there is none. Everyone, even bigots, benefits from a safe, accepting, inclusive learning environment.

You may be wondering why gender-neutral bathrooms are important when only a small percentage of LHS actually needs them. But the number may be larger than you think. Readling says that before she began teaching Gender Studies last year she “didn’t really have a sense of the demographic of Liverpool in terms of gender identity or sexuality, but I find that a lot of people who take my class do identify as something besides cisgender or heterosexual.”

Not conforming to the gender that you were assigned at birth isn’t as uncommon as you might think, but even if it was, taking measures to make LHS as inclusive as it can be would still be important. Just because having to choose a bathroom isn’t a stressor that most students face doesn’t mean that no student faces it, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.

Our principals, specifically Principal Kasey Dolson, are working on implementing gender-neutral bathrooms. Dolson says that realistically gender-neutral bathrooms are not possible right now simply because of the construction and layout of the building, but “the administrative team recognizes that there is a need and we will continue to work on moving forward with a plan. As we move forward, we hope to get some student input and would like to collaborate with our social workers, counselors, and school nurses.”

So while it’s unfortunately unlikely that LHS will have more gender-neutral bathrooms before we’ve all graduated, there is hope for the future and hope for future transgender and gender-nonconforming LHS students. As of right now, though, there are other measures that the administration could take, such as putting plaques next to the bathrooms which make it clear that students may use whichever bathroom they feel is “theirs,” as well as reminders that there is a gender-neutral option in the nurse’s office.

Students could also be reminded in the beginning of the year that the LHS faculty is there to support them, and that there are social workers who can help them increase their comfort at school. It’s important to recognize that there are many students at LHS who don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender, and we must work to make inclusivity and acceptance priorities in our school.

All students of all genders have the right to feel safe and comfortable at school, and we need to do whatever we can to make that possible.

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