Inclusive Excellence Means Inclusive Access: A Treatise on All-Gender Restrooms at UMBC (and Beyond)

Written by Women’s Center Coordinator Amelia Meman, ’15.

A pink toilet on a rainbow gradient. Text reads

With the recent opening of UMBC’s first ever multi-user/stall all-gender restroom, I have become incensed to finally publish this very argumentative blog on all-gender restrooms. In this piece, I’m trying to deconstruct all of the myths, misgivings, and misinformation surrounding all-gender restrooms, and offer some ways of seeing (and potentially peeing) differently.

The MYTH of All-Gender Restrooms: Creating all-gender restrooms is dangerous because it provides an opportunity for sexual predators to attack vulnerable populations (women and children).

The REALITY of All-Gender Restrooms: They exist and have existed for a while through anti-discrimination protections and there is literally no evidence that these policies and the creation of all-gender restrooms lead to more attacks on anyone.

The REALITY of All-Gender Restrooms, Pt. 2: In creating and actualizing discriminatory policies that relegate particular people to particular bathrooms, we increase the likelihood of violence against vulnerable populations–in this case, trans and gender non-conforming folks.

We’re a STEM-heavy school, so let me put it this way: there is absolutely no empirical evidence that would support the hypothesis that increasing access to all-gender restrooms also increases violence against vulnerable populations like women and children.

Fine, done, end of blog.

Just kidding.

I want to continue deconstructing this myth and how damaging it is to the transgender folks in our world—and subsequently, how the perpetuation of this myth is totally antithetical to UMBC’s values of inclusive excellence, diversity, and social justice. So let’s dive in:

The myth of all-gender bathroom bills promoting violence against women and children implies two other dangerous notions that need be dispelled:

  1. Trans people = sexual predators
  2. Transgender people do not have the “correct genitalia” to use with their respective gender’s restroom (“if you have a penis, you need to use the men’s restroom”)

First: Who are the “sexual predators” we keep referring to?

Let’s take this first one apart, “trans people = sexual predators.” This line of thinking stems from the (not so distant) historical pathologization of people who don’t conform to socially constructed gender roles; AKA “trans people are crazy and dangerous.”

Not to totally historicize this issue because it is still a present challenge, but in the past, any and all people with non-heterosexual, non-traditional gender conforming identities were considered sexual deviants. In the early 20th century, a sexual revolution in Europe was pushing the boundaries of the way these “sexual deviants” were understood, especially through a medicalized and scientific lens. A cure to deviancy was no longer about keeping problematic individuals away from the public, but around diagnosis and treatment.  

Time rolls on and we move through many sexual revolutions, progress, trans and LGB icons, marches, revolutions, etc.. If you were transgender in this time, then you had “gender identity disorder,” a mental illness through all of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders through the Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; AKA the Bible of psychiatry and other mental health practitioners). Thus, the idea of transgender people as those who are mentally ill is cemented by The Experts.

Fast forward to 2013: the DSM-V (the fifth edition of the DSM published by the APA in 2013) now uses the term “gender dysphoria” to describe the distress associated with not being able to be the gender we are. The difference here is very nuanced but important. To quote the APA, “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.” In other words, it’s not that being trans or non-binary is crazy. It’s that not being able to be the gender you are (and the barriers society constantly throws up) results in gender dysphoria.

We need to dislodge the synonymity between “transgender” and “problem,” because people are not problems; gender is not a problem. The barriers that we have put up between people accessing (or even just experimenting with being) our truest selves, is the problem.

A group of people hold signs at a protest against military ban on transgender people. Two signs in focus read

Second: “But what if a man in a dress uses a women’s restroom”

This is the token visual that opponents of all-gender restrooms look towards. We’ve all seen and experienced this joke: a big burly masculine man is in a hyper-feminine outfit. We’re made to laugh at how these two things don’t go together—but this “joke” is founded on the idea that people who look particular ways have to also act and present themselves in a way that matches our assumptions. This is what we like to call “gender essentialism.”

Gender essentialism/biological essentialism is the idea that there is a particular set of female or male genitalia that indicates your gender (e.g. penis = man; vagina = woman), and therefore should be the criteria by which people act, dress, use a bathroom, etc. The insistence that people with certain biological criteria or physical characteristics are particular genders is an essentialist way of thinking–and it’s also a restrictive way of thinking.

Most of us grow up learning to think as biological essentialists. We’re often taught about sex/gender binaries in our health class or with our parents, right? We’re taught that women, girls, females have vaginas, breasts, hips, higher voices, XX chromosomes; men, boys, males have penises, testes, facial hair, lower voices, XY chromosomes.

Biological essentialism rules the rhetorical roost of how we think about gender and sex; however, a different way of seeing gender and sex is to understand both as “socially constructed.” This is not to say that gender or sex is something we, as a society, have made up; rather, the meanings we ascribe to each of these things has been made through social patterns, behavior, etc. that are continually repeated until they read as fact. Fact becomes synonymous with objectivity and truth. I’m not trying to get into a philosophical discussion of what social constructionism is and how we should unlearn the meanings we learned about in school (if you want to get into that, see my office hours), but what I’m trying to get to is that biological essentialism is not the only way of seeing the world. We can see through a lens of social constructionism which enables us to do more questioning about the conclusions that we come to.

A line of 8 people icons, each a different color with different male, female, transgender symbols overlaid on their faces.A conclusion you could (should) question (always) is how we police gender and sex by creating rules around what each of these is defined as. Not every woman has a vagina. Not every person with a penis is male. People with XY chromosomes can be any gender in their lifetime. People can have a variety of different biological sex characteristics that do not align with the sex or gender they were prescribed at birth.

To go all the way back to that initial worry that a “man in a dress” will pee next to your daughter or your grandma or you, we can use a more inclusive lens for thinking about this scenario: three people have to pee. There are three private stalls in which they can do their business. These three people pee however it is they do so, and they simultaneously respect each other’s privacy. These three people might look all different sorts of ways, but it doesn’t matter because they came into the bathroom with the same goals–and having completed those goals, wash their hands, and exit in peace and respect.

My final word on this (as if I haven’t had enough already): If you dream of world peace, consider also dreaming of world where all people pee in peace. 

Fact Sharing

Okay, so I hope my mythbusting was validating, revelatory, or rote for you. Either way, here’s a fact that I want to share to displace the ugliness above that many opponents like to spread.

FACT: All-gender restrooms are an issue of discrimination and access.

Let’s break this down the same way we did the myth:

First: All gender-restrooms undoing discrimination

When we tell particular people that they are too different to use the bathroom they feel comfortable using, we are ultimately telling people that they are not, in some way, worthy of being in the space they deserve. This is discrimination.

Some folks in this world believe that by pressing for progress in trans rights, we are, among other misguided notions, setting a bad example for our children. But here’s the thing—the more we repress gender fluidity and multiple ways of being, the more undue violence we are perpetrating against children as they understand themselves as individuals. The tangible effects of discrimination do not come in the form of less trans people; rather, trans people will always exist, have always existed, but they will continue to meet a negative message that causes mental, psychological, and social distress. Not allowing transgender children to live their gender identity is harmful and potentially deadly. When you’re constantly met with the message that you’re too different to belong, you begin to face the alternative of belonging… which is shame and isolation.

We combat discrimination and its effects through inclusive access and affirming care. Hence, the importance of all-gender restrooms and ensuring their creation.

Second: All-gender restrooms as practical solutions to access issues

I want to bring this back to UMBC for a second with a little test: Do you know where the closest all gender restroom is?

If you do, congratulations. If you don’t, you’re not alone.

In total, there are almost 60 all-gender restrooms on our campus.

In the Commons? Two.

In the University Center? One.

And these are all just single-use restrooms.

Regardless of what you think in terms of trans rights or issues of identity, it’s a fact that UMBC is home to folks who live outside of the binary and those who are not cisgender. Whether they identify as trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, etc., they should be able to use a bathroom without having to search an entire building for the one restroom that exists.

The Williams Institute performed research on how transgender students with limited public restroom access were impacted by these restrictions. In their study, they found that those who experience problems accessing restrooms consistent with their gender identity report greater absenteeism, poorer school performance, withdrawing from public spaces and events, physical and mental health impacts (such as bladder infections, discomfort, and anxiety), having to change schools, or dropping out.

Wrapping Up

Did you read Everyone Poops? Truly a seminal piece of children’s literature, the message rings true even in today’s modern world. Everyone poops. Everyone needs bathrooms. As teachers, workers, students, people living in this world in the soft fleshy body we call Homo sapien—we need to have an efficient, clean, accessible method for disposing of our waste. We have actually found the key in publicly available toilets and bathrooms. As a frequent user, I endorse that they’re pretty fantastic in a pinch, even if they’re stinky or crowded or awkward.

The cover of the book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi.

If I’m dreaming, I believe that one day, maybe we will find the technology that allows all people on this earth to shirk public restrooms, but until that day… please just let people use the toilet in peace—and if you’re feeling fired up about ensuring other people’s access, see the resources below for ways you can help out.

Finally, if you don’t like all-gender restrooms, you don’t have to use them. But as our campus and many other places progress in ensuring broader access to all-gender restrooms, it might be a nice experiment in perspective building to go in search for that rare one gender bathroom all the way across campus that affirms your identity, that you feel totally safe in, and in which you can use the bathroom however you need to.

See what I did there?

Student leader, Autumn, standing with a balloon arch we made to celebrate the opening of UMBC's first multi-user all-gender restroom.

Student leader, Autumn, standing with a balloon arch we made to celebrate the opening of UMBC’s first multi-user all-gender restroom.

Resources and further reading:

UMBC All-Gender Restroom Map (2019)

UMBC Community News Message on All-Gender Restrooms from President Hrabowski and Provost Rous

GLAAD Report: Debunking the Bathroom Bill Myth (2017) 

Williams Institute Study – Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Laws in Public Accommodations: a Review of Evidence Regarding Safety and Privacy in Public Restrooms, Locker Rooms, and Changing Rooms

Transgender Rights: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Breakdown of Transgender bathroom laws in the United States

Our Mothers

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we mourn the loss of our trans siblings to violence and celebrate their lives, bravery, and accomplishments. Today we honor our elders and those who paved the way before us. Today we use our mouths to speak the voices that have been silenced.

Below is a collection of art created by Amelia Meman for Women’s History Month 2015. These women, some alive and some not, are some examples of the amazing abilities, resistance, and resilience found in our community. This art has been compiled in zine format, available in print at the Women’s Center and in PDF form here.

Dedicated to Viv. We miss you.

cece-mcdonald-print

cece mcdonald was arrested on june 5, 2011 for the death of dean shmitz after shmitz’s girlfriend threw a glass in her face. shmitz and a group of friends harassed mcdonald and her friends outside a bar, shouting transphobic and racist slurs and comments at the group. when cece confronted the group, shmitz’s girlfriend threw the glass and a fight ensued. cece was charged with second degree murder and plead guilty to a charge of second degree manslaughter on june 4 of 2012. she was released on jan 13, 2014 after 19 months in men’s prison. activists raised a cry against anti-trans violence with shouts of “free cece” during her trial and prison sentence. since her release, cece has become an activist herself, working and speaking against the prison system and anti-trans violence and she has received the bayard rustin civil rights award from the harvey milk lgbt democratic club. a documentary titled free cece, directed by laverne cox and jac gares, is expected to be released in 2016

Continue reading

Healing My Community

Daniel Willey A reflection by Women’s Center staff member Daniel

Trigger warning for suicide mention; resources at the bottom of the post

My community experienced a tragedy early this October, and the ripples from the impact are still cascading across campus and beyond. I woke up that morning to several messages from friends and coworkers telling me what I already knew: a dear friend had passed from suicide.

This friend was a very private person whose spouse has also asked for privacy. In order to respect their wishes, this blog post isn’t about her. That said, I’m incredibly sad about her passing and I miss her every day and I certainly don’t want anybody to forget her. Ever. She was insatiably curious and incredibly smart. She cared deeply for her community and the students she encountered. And now she’s gone.

My friend was a trans woman and she was active in the community of queer and trans students on campus. Her death had an enormous impact on that community, and we continue to be impacted by it for many reasons. Many, and in fact most, of us in the queer and trans community live with mental illness, neurodiversity, or both, and to see it overtake someone who tried so hard for so long is discouraging at best. Mostly, it’s frightening. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on health and health care, 41% of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetime. In the face of all of this, it’s been so hard for my community to see the light.

But also in the face of all of this, I’ve seen some incredible coming together. We are a community who has had to learn how to take care of each other. It can be difficult because sometimes we can’t even take care of ourselves, but when shit really hits the fan I know I have people I can be with. There are people with whom I can cry and talk frankly about how fucking bad it feels. And then we hold each other and support one another and even though we’re all having a hard time, we’re doing it together.  Continue reading

Reading Redefining Realness

Shira

 

A short book reflection by Shira Devorah 

Just a few moments ago I finished Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness, My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. I’m still stunned. I’m not much of a memoir reader, but I’m pretty sure this book has changed that.

Thanks to a generous donation from UMBC’s LGBTQ Faculty & Staff Association, I was able to snatch up this book from the Women’s Center’s very own lending library! Over the past couple of days, I have been relishing every moment of Janet Mock and her story. Mock, a trans woman of color, takes her readers through her life from early childhood until now. In a whirlwind of wit and poignancy, she shares herself with us.

I am not ashamed to admit that I cried a whole bunch throughout this book. Mock fought tooth and nail to become the woman she is today, and though she has been through a lot of pain and oppression, she never falters in her stance as an activist. Every personal recollection comes with a lesson Mock has for her readers. She challenges us to be better people, to see others more complexly, to  be critical of systems of inequality and injustice that exist all around us. Mock allows her readers to peak into incredibly sensitive parts of her, and trusts us to learn from the barriers she faced in her girlhood and adolescence.

I think this memoir is a wonderful introduction to intersectional identities and social justice. Any person who picks up this book will be gently introduced to many concepts that they might not have been privy to beforehand.  While I feel like I know a bit about many issues touched upon in this book, I have been changed  by her discussions. Continue reading

Trans Identities + Mental Health Resources Round-Up

A resource round-up provided by Women’s Center staff members

In case you missed yesterday’s roundtable on Trans Identities + Mental Health (or if you were there and want to keep the conversation going), we thought it might be useful to summarize some of the discussion in addition to linking to some useful reading materials and resources. Trans + Mental Health - event

As with all of our roundtables, we reached out to our panel members and asked them to keep some of guiding questions in mind as they shared their stories and examples. Some of these questions included:

  • Where do the intersections of trans identities and mental health show up for you personally? In the classroom? In your activism? In your peer networks?
  • How does stigma against mental illness impact trans people’s experiences seeking support or other mental health services?
  • How are the needs of trans people different and/or similar to those of LGB+ people with regard to mental health?
  • Why is the intersection of trans identities and mental health a social justice and/or feminist issue?

Continue reading

On Self Love and Testosterone

Halloween was this Friday (as if you didn’t already know that– I know, I’m still recovering from my candy coma, too) and I’ve been doing a lot of self reflection on the past year. Most people do their reflecting in January at the start of the new year, but Halloween is my “new year.” I started my medical transition on October 31, 2013, so as Friday rolled around I began thinking about all the things that have happened and who I’ve become since last Halloween.

guhhh…This Halloween definitely paid for my dentist’s vacation.

I am so much happier than I was 18 months ago. I have a group of very dear friends who care about me. I have made my own family and my own home here in Baltimore, and my family’s house back in Frostburg feels much more welcoming. I feel joy again. I’m doing well in school. I feel validated in my work and I feel like I have the ability to make change not just at UMBC, but in the larger community.

If you had told me all of this before I went on testosterone, I would have said, “Wow! It’s amazing all the things testosterone can do for me!” Now, I’ve realized that the testosterone had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t some magical elixir like a Felix Felicis potion. It didn’t fix something that was broken. It didn’t give me friends or make people like me more. All of that was me. I did that.

“Bottled good fortune. Brewed correctly the drinker of this potion will be lucky in all their endeavors…” –J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

It’s amazing the things you can discover about who you are and what you’re capable of once you stop putting all your energy into hating yourself. Being on testosterone didn’t make me hate myself less– just like losing 20 pounds isn’t going to make your body image issues go away. It removed the thing I was using as an excuse for hating myself. It’s easy to say, “I’ll love myself once I’m on testosterone,” but I realized that self love doesn’t come in a 10mL vial. You can’t diet your way to self love, either. You have to work towards it and it’s hard, but it’s totally worth it.

What I’ve learned in the past twelve months is that I am worthy of my love unconditionally and let me tell you, that Halloween candy tastes so much sweeter now.