The issue of who gets to use what public bathrooms is an increasingly contentious one with the state of North Carolina, for example, passing a law that would force transgender persons to use the facility according to the gender they were assigned at birth and forbidding local entities from doing otherwise. The new law also “prevents all cities and counties from extending protections covering sexual orientation and gender identity at restaurants, hotels and stores.”
There has been a backlash to this with threats of boycotts and the state has been sued. The state’s attorney general Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has said that he will not defend the law because he thinks is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, as a result of protests by students at Cooper Union, a college in New York, the administration there is taking a novel approach.
Last fall, the oldest building on the Cooper Union campus underwent a sudden renovation. A group of students, agitating for their transgender classmates, stripped the words “men” and “women” off the doors of the Foundation Building’s restrooms.
The act expressed years of pent-up frustration that in lower Manhattan, at one of the most liberal colleges in the country, students who failed to conform to gender norms nevertheless risked harassment whenever they went to the bathroom.
But then, the unexpected happened. The signs were never replaced. And in an apparent first for a US college, the Cooper Union administration this month moved to remove the gender designations from all the bathrooms on campus by taking down the rest of the men’s and women’s signage from bathrooms.
The school has ordered the signs but hasn’t yet placed them in the buildings. Placards outside what was formerly the men’s room will read “restroom with urinal and stalls”, and outside the former women’s room, “restroom with only stalls”.
The change represents a triumph even as the student activists say that the campus can still be an unfriendly place for transgender individuals and those who do not identify with either gender. The dorms remain divided by gender, although the school says it is accommodating of students who request different arrangements.
I was discussing this with a female former colleague and she said that what bothers her is not the presence of people in restrooms whose birth gender is different from hers or from the one they present but the fact that public bathrooms are places where it is easy to feel trapped. After all, the mere presence of a sign is not going to deter someone with bad intent of going into a restroom. What she would really like to see are bathrooms with two doors to make escape easy if she feels that someone seems threatening.