Why transgender students need "safe" bathrooms

Editor's note: Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, which memorializes those who have been killed due to their gender identity. In honour, we are sharing two articles on our blog. The first, below, was originally posted on The Conversation US yesterday for International Toilet Day. It highlights the importance of ensuring transgender students have access to the bathroom they choose. Much of the opposition to laws and policies that will protect transgender rights comes from evangelical faith groups.

Explainer: why transgender students need "safe" bathrooms

Alison Gash, University of Oregon

Bathroom safety has become the next battle for transgender students on college campuses across the nation.

Often referred to as “bathroom desegregation,” calls for safer bathrooms have inspired “shit-ins” at California Polytechnic and San Diego State, where transgender advocates asked student allies to use only gender-neutral restrooms.

Recently, “urine” blockades also confronted Berkeley students at Sather Gate, the main entrance to campus. Advocates filled plastic cups with fake urine and lined them up to greet students as they crossed the threshold into campus to protest inadequate restrooms for transgender students.

Why all the contention over bathrooms? Recent studies suggest that over 50% of transgender individuals will experience sexual assault in their lifetime (a rate that is far higher than for nontransgendered individuals), and using bathrooms could pose a significant threat of physical harm or harassment.

Fear of violence

Studies show that transgender students could be harassed, sexually assaulted or subjected to other physical violence when they are required to use a gendered bathroom.

One survey, commissioned by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA, found that 68% of participants were subjected to homophobic slurs while trying to use the bathroom. Nine percent confronted physical violence.

Another study that surveyed transgender individuals in Washington, DC found that 70% were either verbally threatened, physically assaulted or prevented in some way from using the bathroom of their choice. Some experienced more than one form of such behavior.

Yet another survey found that 26% of transgender students in New York were denied access to their preferred bathrooms altogether.

Redesigning bathrooms

As a result, transgender students need to constantly weigh the trade-offs as they consider bathroom options.

As one University of Washington student articulates:

Do I choose physical safety or emotional safety? Do I choose physical health or mental health?

Universities are bringing in policies to have gender-neutral bathrooms. Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

So, from California to Texas, in elementary schools and colleges, administrators are considering the costs and benefits of redesigning bathrooms to accommodate transgender students.

For example, students at University of Pittsburgh can now use bathrooms that conform to their own gender identity. Arizona State University, Ohio State and Wesleyan University, among several others, have instituted policies requiring all new construction to include gender-neutral bathrooms. They are assessing how to modify the existing bathrooms to become gender-neutral single-stall facilities.

This is not limited to colleges and universities. As increasing numbers of primary- and secondary-school-aged children are identifying as transgender, public schools have become “ground zero” for fights over bathroom safety.

Miraloma Elementary School, in San Francisco, for instance, removed gendered signs from many of their bathrooms.

In fact, about two years ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the School Success and Opportunity Act, requiring that all students be able to access bathrooms or locker rooms that are consistent with their own gender identity in California’s K-12 settings.

The ‘bathroom bill’ opposition

But as with other issues concerning transgender rights, some have reacted to these changes with visceral opposition.

For instance, Wisconsin, along with several other states, is considering legislation that would require school districts to only provide separate-gendered bathrooms as a way to stop local school districts from accommodating requests from transgender students.

An elementary school student in Stafford County, Virginia, was prohibited from using the bathroom associated with her gender identity after parents and politicians in the state spoke out against the student’s request.

In fact, opposition to these bathroom accommodations figured prominently in the initiative to vote down Houston’s recent antidiscrimination ordinance, which would have, like hundreds of others across the nation, prohibited discrimination in housing, gender and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, among others.

Opponents dubbed it the “bathroom bill,” framing the policy as one that would permit “men in women’s bathrooms” and would expose women and girls to sexual predators.

Consequently, the ordinance – subjected to public review under court order – failed with 61% of the voters.

This opposition exists even when transgender advocates have not only focused on their own risks but have also invoked the needs of students with disabilities, those who may need “family bathrooms” and students who have survived sexual abuse and are more comfortable with single-stall facilities.

And now, Privacy for All, a group dedicated to opposing transgender bathroom advocacy, is hoping to launch a similar campaign in California. It is currently collecting signatures to bar any public institution from permitting individuals to use bathrooms or changing rooms that comport with their gender identity.

Federal intervention has sent out mixed signals as well. On the one hand, the Department of Education issued a letter to an Illinois school district stating that denying a transgender student’s rights to access a bathroom consistent with their gender identity is a violation of Title IX.

On the other hand, a federal court rejected a transgender student’s claim that his equal rights were violated when his university rejected his request to use a locker room that matched his gender identity.

Need for safety

At this point, for most transgender students, bathroom options are limited.


Transgender students need safe spaces. Ted Eytan, CC BY-SA

Either they have to travel quite a distance to get to the nearest single-stall gender-neutral bathroom, or change in an “alternative” locker room (often a faculty bathroom or custodial closet).

There could even be days when they go to class in their workout clothes or “hold it in.” Hence, demonstrating Berkeley students held out signs that said: “Where was I supposed to go?” or “I couldn’t hold it any longer.”

Such options have clear drawbacks and health risks. Urinary tract infections, depression and even suicide could be among them.

As a result, sometimes students see their best option as renting a house near campus so they can go home to use the bathroom.

As we mark World Toilet Day by campaigning on behalf of the billions of individuals who lack access to safe, clean sanitation, remember that among those denied access to safe bathrooms are transgender students.

The Conversation

Alison Gash, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Showing 5 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • commented 2017-05-10 08:50:42 -0700
    We just had a case in New York state where these insane “any bathroom you want” laws have bearded men walking into girls’ changerooms declaring themselves “female” and changing in front of the young girls there. THAT is what your insane bathroom policies will get you. At beaches changerooms and bathrooms are joined together, so same thing there. I was transgender (I am over 50) when doing so in public would get you beat to a pulp in public, and we have just gotten to a state where I can go into a men’s room dressed like a woman and get nothing more than some harmless smiles. Now YOU are forcing policies that will allow ANYBODY that identifies as female into women’s bathrooms and changerooms and that puts me at risk! Because when people start getting angry about big bearded guys in the women’s room they are going to get mad at ALL trans and that means suddenly I won’t be safe in men’s room again because of the people pushing this program. I was beat to a pulp in the 80s for being trans, and I will be damned if I will let an authoritarian new generation roll back the advances we have made by shoving policies down everybody’s throats. “Identity” will never eliminate or obfuscate the REALITY of hundreds of years of male aggression and violence against women, and that needs to be recognized and RESPECTED by making sure their safe spaces are protected from men that claim to identify as women; and these selfish, cowardly transgenders that want to shift their insecurity and danger onto little girls should be ashamed of themselves! Female rape victims have to change next to bearded men in the pool? Outrageous!

    All these new young trannies that want to shove everything down everybody’s throats rather than putting it to an HONEST open debate and referendum, will never be “real women” because real women would never endanger little girls to protect themselves or so they could hide the truth of who they are. And then the nerve to promote laws that will make criticizing it a hate crime are criminal in themselves. Anybody promoting this stuff is in my opinion an enemy of free speech and a destroyer of women’s safe spaces. I can go into the men’s room dressed like a female, why can’t you? Oh yes, it is all about deception, I forgot. All these young trannies too embarrassed to admit that you are transgender or do not want the guy you are fooling to know what you are, so you have to hide in the women’s room instead being proud of who you are and owning it. Women are going to start waking up from this trance you have cast on them one by one. Then this little social engineering project is going to come to an end. I just hope I am still safe when your insane program comes to an end. I wish you would all smarten up and back off, but most of you are too selfish. Stay in the washroom/changeroom that corresponds with your BODY not your mind.

    It is time other transgenders woke up and joined me in realizing these insane new policies put us all in danger. If you are male and want into the women’s room, you better get srs, because as a “real woman” you will not being needing those male genitals anyway will you? Strangely most of us keep them and we all know why. So if you do keep them, then you go into the men’s room with me. Own who you are and develop some courage! You are not women. You are transgenders, so be transgenders, admit it, and own it, and respect women’s safe spaces. I am transgender and I admit and I am proud and I respect women’s safe places. Stop being so selfish and/or stupid. None of this “oh let every public place decide if it is men in the women’s room or not”; BS, women have a right to safe spaces EVERYWHERE in public, free from bearded men that call themselves women. I am transgender and want safety as much as anybody, but this new agenda will not grant that. It will just create anger and break down the social fabric that has held us together, but perhaps that is what the ghouls at the top want. Has everybody lost their minds? Where is Toto when you need him to pull back the curtain?

    Let’s see if this place supports free speech or censorship.
  • commented 2017-01-22 19:46:16 -0800
    Most institutions already have male and female bathrooms. Female bathrooms generally have only stalls with doors and no urinals. Male bathrooms have both. (How do I, a cis-male, know about female bathrooms? you might ask. Many decades ago, worked as a toilet cleaner in a hospital so had occasion to work in both types of bathrooms. :) ) The simplest and most equitable solution would be to allow everyone to choose to use whichever bathroom they are most comfortable with. If necessary, if there really is a problem with predators abusing this policy to attack females in female bathrooms, or trans men in male bathrooms, it would be a technologically trivial solution to provide panic buttons in the stalls and near the entrances to the bathrooms.
  • commented 2017-01-22 18:00:56 -0800
    The laws ought to be changed so that each and every person in each and every gender has to right to decide whether or not to have privacy, including in the bathroom, therefore, the laws on bathrooms ought to be changed so that each and every place, including public place, is allowed (not required, but allowed) to have both bathrooms with privacy and bathrooms without privacy therefore, I request that all of the following laws be created and passed; I think it would be a good idea if the laws of the City of Greater New York, the laws of the State of New York, the laws of all of the other states of the USA, the laws of all other areas under USA control, and the laws of the rest of the world were changed so that (1) each and every person in each and every gender is given the legal right to decide whether or not to have privacy, including in the toilet and in the shower, (2) every public place would be required to have at least a female bathroom with privacy and a male bathroom with privacy, and (3) each and every public place that has these aforementioned bathrooms would be allowed (not required, but allowed) to also have other types of bathrooms, including but not limited to a mixed-gender bathroom with privacy and a mixed-gender bathroom without privacy in order to give each and every person of all genders a choice on whether or not to be seen naked by people of all genders, whether or not to see people of all genders naked, whether or not to expose one’s private parts to any person of any gender whatsoever, and whether or not to see the private parts of any person of any gender whatsoever, that whoever objects to all this will just simply use a bathroom that gives privacy and if they also want only to be with the gender they were born with, this request will be granted. This proposal for a change of laws is all about each and every individual person’s choice.
    By the term bathrooms with privacy, I mean that a public place ought to be required to have at least several single person restrooms plus a female bathroom with several toilets and each toilet has a stall and a door, plus a male bathroom with several toilets and each toilet has a stall and a door. The kind of law I want to be passed says that a public place that has several single person restrooms, a female bathroom with several toilets and each toilet has a stall and a door, and a male bathroom with several toilets and each toilet has a stall and a door is allowed (not required but allowed) to also have other types of bathrooms, including but not limited to (1) a mixed gender bathroom with several toilets and each toilet has a stall and a door, and (2) a mixed gender bathroom with several toilets, none of the toilets has a stall, and none of the toilets has a door. This law that I request is designed to give each and every person of all genders a choice on whether or not to have privacy, whether or not to be seen naked by any person of any gender whatsoever, whether or not to see any person of any gender naked, whether or not to expose one’s private parts to any person of any gender whatsoever, and whether or not to see the private parts of any person of any gender whatsoever. Under this proposed law, whoever wants privacy gets privacy and whoever does not want privacy does not get privacy. It is all about each and every individual person’s choice.
    Please give your feedback and please reply.
  • commented 2015-11-20 15:25:42 -0800
    I agree with you Ullrich on the possible gender-neutral bathroom solution (with closed stalls obviously). I don’t think cameras will work – beyond the literal invasion of privacy that I’m personally not okay with – it assumes someone’s going to be watching all that footage or reviewing it in cases of harassment. There are cameras all over London but harassment and crime still happen on the streets everyday.
  • commented 2015-11-20 14:05:07 -0800
    There is a simple solution which would also save money at institutions which currently have male and female bathrooms: Make all bathrooms gender neutral. That way, where there are now two bathrooms, one could be closed and maybe repurposed for storage or whatever — depending on the volume of usage. The harassment issue could be eliminated by having cameras with a viewing angle which would not reveal genitals at the urinals, or urinals could be replaced by more stalls. The rationale for gender segregated bathrooms has always been a bit shaky… it isn’t like anyone of any gender is somehow unaware that other genders also excrete stuff on occasion.


Created with NationBuilder Creative Commons License