Gender-neutral bathrooms signs spark discussions

Last month, Kristen Blackburn, Queer Student Commission (QSC) director, posted signs identifying the first floor bathrooms of the HUB as gender-neutral, which caused confusion and conference attendees to complain.

“Not everyone has the idea that they sort of fit into this binary of, there is a men’s bathroom, and I’m a man, so I’ll use the men’s bathroom,” she said.

Blackburn said she wanted to raise awareness about the issue. She had sent an email requesting permission, but after not receiving a reply, decided to take action and post the signs, along with a message giving it context.

Paul Zuchowski, associate director of the HUB, was notified about the complaints, and then took the signs down. Zuchowski and Blackburn met to discuss the issue, and came to a compromise: The signs could be posted, but instead of covering the men’s and women’s signs, they would be posted above. They stayed up the rest of the day.

Blackburn said the core of the issue is why certain spaces are gender specific, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, saying it’s a weird concept.

“What’s the difference, and why do we gender those spaces and not other spaces is kind of the question I want to ask people to get them thinking about it,” Blackburn said. 

Zuchowski said he knew Blackburn wanted to raise awareness.

“Sometimes you have to make people uncomfortable to do that, at the same time, from a facility standpoint, we try to serve everyone we can.”

Blackburn said it’s an important issue because for trans* people, it can be a safety issue. Trans* people have been assaulted or kicked out of gender-designated bathrooms.

There is only one gender-neutral, or unisex, bathroom in the HUB, and it is on the third floor next to the Q Center. Campus wide, there are around 20. In 2006, a student group started a campaign to raise awareness and ask for the addition of more of these bathrooms.

“We knew students who were not going to the bathroom all day on-campus, or having to go home, or trying to get into businesses that they knew had gender neutral,” said Jennifer Self, Q Center director.

Between 2010 and 2011, the idea for a project to retrofit bathrooms to gender neutral came up through conversations with Facilities Services. Eventually, the Office of the Vice Provost and Capital Resource Planning became involved and teamed up with the Office of Student Life and the Q Center to raise money to fund it.

The goal was to convert them to be gender neutral, accessible, and parent friendly, so they would be universal bathrooms. Out of 49 possible locations identified, the Q Center recommended 20-26 restrooms they believed to be the best options.

Self said there could have been better collaboration from all groups involved, in terms of helping people in the buildings understand why restrooms were changing. She said there should be more unisex restrooms in the HUB.

“I think that at the time the HUB was being designed, the conversation on this campus about gender-neutral restrooms was not at a place where people were thinking, oh yeah, it’s a good idea, let’s have a gender-neutral restroom on each floor,” Self said.

Zuchowski said gender-neutral bathrooms were a consideration during the construction of the HUB, but Seattle building codes require a certain number of gender-specific bathrooms, and a certain number of stalls, so they could only fit in one gender-neutral bathroom to be in compliance.

They chose to put it by the Q Center, but he said they were not saying everyone who used gender-neutral bathrooms are associated with Q Center. In his discussion with Blackburn, he said she brought up that it’s not convenient, but they tried to be accommodating.

“We’re not opposed to doing the same thing again to raise awareness,” Zuchowski said. “To me, raising awareness is an important thing because we have a very diverse student body.”

The QSC director chose the HUB because it’s a frequently trafficked area, and plans to continue raising awareness of this issue, either in the HUB again, or in other buildings.

“It really depends,” Blackburn said. “I know I’m not done with it. I know that much.”

Reach reporter Chris Lopaze at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Clopaze

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