Gender-neutral Bathrooms Are Radical, but Not How You Think

Published September 6, 2019


For decades, laws have mandated that public bathrooms be accessible; they must contain specific features, like larger stalls or lower sinks, to accommodate those whose needs aren’t met by standard bathrooms, like people who use wheel chairs. Sometimes, public places also have a bathroom that is larger than a standard stall, usually with a changing station for very young children, in order to accommodate families. 

In our K-12 schools, bathrooms typically are sex-segregated and made up of multiple stalls. Unfortunately, that means that these bathrooms fail to accommodate all students. Some students may suffer from certain psychological conditions, like paruresis and parcopresis, which make use of these bathrooms impossible. Various other medical conditions prevent use of these types of bathrooms as well.

These bathrooms in schools also pose difficulty to transgender and gender nonconforming students. GLSEN research shows that nearly two thirds of transgender students avoid school bathrooms because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. They risk verbal and physical harassment, no matter which of the two, sex-segregated bathrooms they enter.

Also, over half of transgender students report that they were required to use the bathroom of their legal sex rather than the one that they feel most comfortable using. The U.S. Department of Justice has deemed this requirement illegal under Title IX.

Feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, and at risk of illegal disciplinary action, these students might “hold it” or restrict intake of fluids, risking pain and dehydration. Some of these students even leave school altogether. These outcomes are not positive in any way, for any one.

The solution here is not a new or radical concept: all schools should have private, gender-neutral bathrooms for any students to use, in the same, normal way that homes have bathrooms for guests to use and many restaurants have bathrooms that are not labeled for the sexes. This is not to suggest, however, that there be a separate bathroom for transgender students, like presidential candidate Ben Carson recently proposed, because separate is never equal.

While this solution is not new, what is in fact new is the notion that the needs of all students deserve to be met. And while this solution is not radical, what is in fact radical is the positive impact that this solution has on transgender, gender nonconforming, and all students for whom privacy in bathrooms benefits their wellbeing.

GLSEN Oregon stands as a strong advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools. In a rural part of the state, we recently helped a high school GSA create change. Although our advocacy was a tough fight, we used GLSEN’s resources in our efforts, ultimately changing all single-stall bathrooms in the school to gender-neutral bathrooms accessible to all students during class time.

We all want success for all students. Whether you are a student, educator, or ally, you can use GLSEN’s model policy to advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools. This advocacy can help create learning environments that are safe and affirming, which all students need to reach success.

Danni/y Rosen is Chair of GLSEN Oregon.