One of the first things I noted moving into Stanford four weeks ago to start my freshman year was the bathroom situation. Back home in Utah, virtually all restrooms were segregated strictly by gender. Yet now, right across the hall from me, was a gender neutral bathroom. I discovered that this wasn’t merely a peculiarity in my hall; virtually every dorm and major building I visited on campus had these bathrooms.
In 2017, Stanford stepped up its efforts to create an all-gender inclusive environment on campus by mandating the conversion of dozens of gendered single-use and communal bathrooms to gender neutral facilities. The merits of this initiative on the surface are obvious: Transgender, nonbinary or other gender-queer people have access to inclusive facilities. This inclusion is especially meaningful in the current climate of hostility towards queer rights in the arena of public accommodations. Furthermore, while we often like to perceive the debate over gender-neutral/inclusive bathrooms as being a queer rights issue, it is also fundamentally a women’s rights issue. Cisgender women stand to benefit as much from gender-neutral restrooms as their trans sisters and other queer people.
Queer individuals certainly have a good deal to be worried about when it comes to equal access. The Trump administration rescinded its predecessor’s “Dear Colleague” guidance recommending the accommodation of transgender high school students, in essence giving states license to discriminate against them. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the 2017 legislative session, 16 states attempted to introduce “bathroom bills,” such as House Bill 2 (HB2), passed in North Carolina. Even though most of these attempts were unsuccessful, save the infamous HB2 currently being debated in the courts after a partial repeal, their very proposal alone is a demonstration of clear animus towards the LGBTQ+ community in America. The University, in choosing to buck this nationwide trend and embrace gender inclusive bathrooms, has demonstrated that it wants to validate students of all gender identities on campus.
Some argue that the current common practice of separating bathrooms by assigned sex is a form of “gender apartheid.” While I personally wouldn’t describe it in terms quite as extreme as that, there is an inherent problem in separating women from men in that for practical purposes this results in reinforcement of gender stereotypes and encourages social division by sex. Building a barrier between men and women in such a mundane area makes the idea of building barriers in more consequential areas (in the workforce, in civic life, etc.) seem more acceptable. In simpler words, gendered bathrooms can help foster sexism as well as queerphobia. That is not to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns about bringing together men and women in such a personal space; the specter of harassment and assault loom large. However, I would argue that by desegregating public restrooms on the basis of gender we can demystify femininity, breaking down the tendencies of men to reduce women to sexual objects and eliminating the voyeuristic element of men’s fascination with what goes on in women’s restrooms. By deprogramming men from fetishizing women and viewing the women’s bathroom as a sexual opportunity, the culture of harassment women can be overcome.
I believe that moving towards unisex/gender inclusive bathrooms is a positive development. The policy of the University on this issue is a step in the right direction. Not only do all-gender bathrooms prevent sexist divisions from developing and provide people of all genders equal facility access, they provide greater personal liberty and choice to all individuals. In my personal experience, gender-inclusive restrooms have been just that: inclusive. I feel safe and welcome; I am not weighed down by gender stigma or culture war political symbolism. At the end of the day, I am able to do my business in peace.
Contact Cole Griffiths at colegrif ‘at’ stanford.edu.