Are Gender-Neutral Restrooms a Fundamental Right?

News and views from academia.
April 24 2014 3:37 PM

Bargaining for Bathrooms

University of California grad student workers fight for gender-neutral restrooms and lactation stations.

140424_HIED_BathroomBerkeley

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock & Wikimedia Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:UCBerkeleyCampus.jpg)

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

In what advocates are calling an extremely significant development in the fight for gender-neutral restrooms on college campuses, graduate student workers across the University of California System say they’ve reached a tentative contract agreement on language that establishes access to such facilities as a “right.”

The workers also reached a similar agreement on language regarding access to lactation stations. Because graduate student workers can be found throughout the university system, the agreement would effectively provide access to such facilities for other students, faculty members, and employees, not just graduate students.

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Students across the U.S. have fought for such access for years, although policies governing lactation stations are more established than those for gender-neutral bathrooms, given federal oversight of the rights of nursing mothers in the workplace. Graduate students involved in negotiations at the University of California say they want to promote the idea that such access can be achieved through collective bargaining, along with pay raises and other more traditional matters in contract negotiations.

Amanda Armstrong, a Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric at the University of California–Berkeley who has been involved in contract negotiations between the system and Graduate Student Workers-United, affiliated with the United Auto Workers, called the development an “important victory in the larger effort” of increasing access to higher education for gay and transgender students, as well as students who are lactating mothers. Additionally, she said, “we think it could really introduce a tactic, or kind of approach, that hasn’t really been pursued on other campuses—where contracts become a means of advancing these issues. That piece of it feels significant and unprecedented.”

Proponents of gender-neutral restrooms say that the male-female paradigm that still dominates American society is outmoded, discriminatory, and even dangerous for those who don’t identify with their gender assigned at birth. Students have pushed for gender-neutral bathroom facilities for years at many colleges and universities, and those battles have taken increasingly legalistic turns since the U.S. Education and Justice departments last year found that a California school district violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by barring a transgender student from sex-specific facilities and activities. Most recently, a transgender student at Piedmont Community College threatened to file a federal complaint after she allegedly was escorted off campus after using the women’s bathroom, consistent with her gender identity.

Graduate student workers at other campuses, including the University of Chicago, also have fought for adequate facilities for expressing breast milk while on campus, beyond bathrooms or maintenance closets, with access to refrigerators for storing milk.

Graduate student workers across the University of California System have been working without a contract since November, and they are still negotiating their new agreement. The gender-neutral bathroom and lactation station language is tentative and won’t take effect until the contract is ratified, but it guarantees graduate student workers access to gender-neutral bathroom facilities within a reasonable distance of their workspaces. Those who don’t have convenient access can address their concerns with the university on a case-by-case basis, which may result in the changing of their course sections to different locations more convenient to existing, gender-neutral facilities. The contract language on lactation stations is similar. The agreed-upon language also describes twice-yearly meetings between the union and the university on these matters, establishing formal mechanisms for feedback.

Although it is not in the contract, Armstrong said the university system already has expressed an interest in designating a gender-neutral bathroom in each new or renovated building going forward. She said university representatives during open negotiations seemed particularly swayed by testimony from students and other witnesses describing harassment in gender-specific bathrooms. One student even described going to the bathroom in the woods surrounding campus to avoid such restrooms, she said. Others go to unhealthy lengths to avoid relieving themselves at all while on campus. Another witness, an administrator of an LGBTQ-friendly program on another campus, framed the issue historically, saying that when she was a graduate student some years ago, there were no women’s restrooms in the chemistry department.

“I think that really shifted how they were thinking about these issues,” Armstrong said of the firsthand accounts.

Shelly Meron, system spokeswoman, said via email: “The agreement we reached with the United Auto Workers regarding gender-neutral bathrooms and lactation stations is about making adjustments to ensure that members of the university community have access to a bathroom or lactation station they need. To be clear, we are not building new facilities. United Auto Workers members can let the university know directly if they have an issue or are uncomfortable with their situation, or they can go through the union if they prefer, and we will work with them to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis.”

Meron said the facilities will be available to graduate students, undergraduates and faculty and other employees. She said the system has an LGBTQ task force that will be recommendations on making campuses more inclusive overall, likely later on this year.

Meron added: “Over all, we’re glad to have made this progress with the United Auto Workers, though there is still work to be done to reach an agreement on the overall contract.”

Another bargaining session is set for later this month. Unsettled issues include graduate employee pay, rights for undocumented students and smaller class sizes.

In an email, Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a LGBTQ advocacy group, said the organization “applauds” the University of California System on the contract language. 

“Access to use the bathroom, and to be safe in doing so, should be a fundamental right for every student on campus,” he said. “This issue is ultimately about student safety and academic learning.”