Many students take the ability to use the bathroom for granted, but for some it is a daily battle.
The University of Minnesota Transgender Commission is attempting to raise awareness about restroom access on campus, not only for members of the transgender community, but for the disabled, chronically ill and anyone who is made uncomfortable by gender-specific public restrooms.
“There are so many reasons someone might just want to have a private space to use the restroom, and I don’t think that’s limited to trans-identified folks or gender-nonconforming folks, but really is a right that is for all of us,” said Remy Corso, University of Minnesota Transgender Commission co-coordinator and transgender student.
The group has consulted disabled people who work with opposite sex caregivers, the chronically ill and diabetics who need to inject insulin that would prefer single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms.
Although these restrooms are traditionally referred to as unisex, Corso said that the term only confuses the group’s agenda, which is restroom access for everyone, and excludes gender identity completely.
Shawyn Lee, the assistant director of the University of Minnesota GLBTA Programs Office , prefers gender-neutral restrooms.
Lee identifies as “genderqueer,” which can mean that Lee identifies as beyond or between genders . When unable to locate a gender-neutral restroom, Lee is forced to use the one Lee chooses as closest to Lee’s identity, which can lead to awkward or dangerous situations.
“Some people don’t express their bodies and their genders in the ways other people expect them to … those people still need to pee, though,” said Ross Neely, University of Minnesota Transgender Commission co-coordinator.
Waiting extreme amounts of time to use the restroom because it’s uncomfortable or frightening can have negative health effects, including frequent urinary tract infections and in serious cases, burst bladders, Corso said.
With these issues in mind, the primary short-term goal of the commission is to change the signs on existing single-person, gender-specific bathrooms to make them gender-neutral and accessible to everyone.
“We don’t usually put gender signs on our restrooms in our homes or our apartments; we usually let people of all genders use those,” Neely said. “But we really do in these public spaces, and [we want] to try to change that first.”
The group is working with the University’s facilities and building planning departments to include gender-neutral restrooms in future University buildings, and the eventual goal is to have gender-neutral restrooms accessible within a short walk of any campus building, Neely said.
Facilities Management assesses where gender-neutral restrooms can be put into new buildings with a cost-neutral budget, Facilities Management Chief Administrative Officer Brad Hoff said.
Of the 283 buildings owned or leased by the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, there are 2,191 public restrooms, approximately 57 of which are gender-neutral. The newly-constructed TCF Bank Stadium has equivalent “family” bathrooms, Hoff said.
The age of campus buildings makes renovation more expensive and difficult; however, Neely said that is a long-term goal.
The cost can be as much as $2,000 to make a single-stall, gender-specific bathroom into a gender-neutral one.
Installing a new bathroom into an unused space or retrofitting a multi-stall, gender-specific restroom can cost up to $50,000, Hoff said.
Often, costs are inflated because the restrooms may need to comply with standards outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 .
Facilities Management is attempting to open private, single-stall faculty bathrooms to the public as gender-neutral restrooms, Hoff said.
In Ford Hall , the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department installed a multi-stall, gender-neutral bathroom in 2008, which is lockable and has operated without incident.
“The world does not collapse when folks of different genders pee together, but literally everybody just gets to pee,” Corso said.
In 2003, the city of Minneapolis repealed an ordinance that penalized people for using restrooms marked for the opposite gender.
Similarly, the University changed its Equal Opportunity Statement in August 2009 to include gender identity and gender expression.
Lee and the group are hopeful that the change signals increased action from the University.
“How can we be a top-three research institution when our student, staff and faculty talent may or may not be able to pee on campus?” Neely said. “We have to provide these basic human rights.”