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UMass students: Bring back our gender-neutral bathroom

  • Students in Baker Hall at the University of Massachusets Amherst have placed this handwritten sign outside a multistall restroom on a floor that caters to LGBTQ people. GAZETTE PHOTO

  • Baker Hall at the University of Massachusets Amherst campus. Sarah Robertson



For The Recorder
Thursday, September 07, 2017

AMHERST — It didn’t take long for students moving into Baker Hall on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus last weekend to notice that a specific floor that caters to LGBTQ people had lost its gender-inclusive multistall bathroom.

After serving as an all-gender bathroom last school year, university officials removed the “All Gender” sign over the summer and converted it back to a women’s bathroom to bring the university into compliance with the state’s plumbing code.

Officials explained in an Aug. 28 email to Baker residents that the code requires multiuser restrooms to be designated as male or female for the purpose of protecting against sexual assault.

“The previous sign ‘all gender’ was installed without consultation with Residential Life Directors, the staff of the Stonewall Center, student organizations or the State Plumbing Board,” the email said.

When classes began on Tuesday, students in the dorm took their own action by modifying the sign again, this time placing a handwritten sign declaring it a “gender-inclusive restroom.”

“I think it’s something that makes a lot of students uncomfortable to have binary restrooms, so to have at least one dorm where it’s gender inclusive is really important,” said Symone Green, a 20-year-old English major and Baker resident. “I feel like Baker should be setting an example for the rest of the dorms.”

Pushback

Gender Liberation UMass, a student organization pushing UMass to adopt more anti-discrimination policies for transgender students, has launched an email campaign urging the university to reverse its decision about the bathroom’s designation in Baker Hall and to “re-create the space as safe and affirming for all residents.” The campaign is directed at UMass Director of Student Services Dawn Bond and the residential area Operations Manager Diana Fordham.

Previously, Baker had been the only dorm on campus with a gender-inclusive multiuser bathroom stall. For some students, this was a key factor in their decision to live in the dorm, which still has single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms.

“I met a lot of really nice trans people who actually went to Baker specifically because they had a gender-neutral bathroom,” Tom Leary, a 21-year-old landscape architecture major, said. “So for them to take that out it’s like, ‘where else am I going to go?’”

Leary also took issue with the idea that an assault might occur in the Baker dorm bathroom.

“I think one thing to look at is the social climate of the building itself,” Leary said. “Baker is very laid back and left-leaning, so I don’t think there would be any issue. In Southwest I might say there would be higher risk of assault on trans people given the social climate of some of the dorms there.”

Green, a cisgendered woman, said she uses the gender-inclusive restroom with no apprehensions.

“It didn’t seem weird that I was talking to someone who might not have a gender or who identifies as a male. I was brushing my teeth. I didn’t feel in danger,” she said.

While UMass Amherst has 135 gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, including two in Baker Hall, these are all single-stall restrooms with full doors. Multistall restrooms with partial doors, like Room 112A in Baker, must have a gender designation, the law states.

Over the past two years, UMass had made a conscious push to increase the number of gender-inclusive restrooms on campus.

“It’s part of the university’s commitment to make the campus inclusive and welcoming for everyone,” said spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons. “We realize there are some people more comfortable with a single-user facility and we’ve invested considerable resources to increase the number of those on campus.”

Members of the university’s gender-inclusive restroom committee will visit Baker Hall on Tuesday, Sept 19, at 6 p.m., to answer remaining questions from students or faculty.

Gender Liberation UMass hopes to use the meeting to start a dialogue and change policies. According to Gender Liberation UMass’s Facebook event, “This meeting is to discuss the process by which the bathroom was re-signed and to make concrete progress towards re-creating a gender inclusive space.”

State ‘bathroom bill’

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a “bathroom bill” that allows people to choose which public restrooms they use based on “gender identity” rather than biological sex. The law includes language to prosecute individuals caught abusing the law for purposes of harassment.

The Massachusetts Family Institute has been campaigning since last October under the slogan of “Keep MA Safe” for a referendum to repeal the law. It has collected the 32,000 signatures needed to get the question on the November 2018 ballot.

“I hope in the future all the restrooms are just labeled restrooms because it’s an inconvenience for me, but for some people it’s so much more,” Green said.