In 2013 the University of Tulsa adopted a nondiscrimination policy. This was achieved after many years of fighting by concerned students, faculty, and staff. This addition is certainly a step to having a more inclusive campus; however, just saying campus is inclusive is not the same as actually having an inclusive campus.
Some people are transgender. This means that the sex they were designated at birth (typically “male” or “female”) does not match their experience of their gender. They may not “fit” into gender expression categories (like masculine or feminine).
They may not appear to other people to be the gender with which they identify. Regardless of any of these things, transgender people deserve safety and respect.
Because transgender folks do not necessarily fit into the binary this society has created, they often cannot go to certain places or do certain things without being in danger. One prominent problem faced by trans folks is that they often cannot safely use the bathroom because of the potential for threats and violence from other people.
I cannot describe how absurd this feels to me. Trans people, like all other people, have intrinsic human dignity and should be afforded the amenities that come with that dignity. Specifically, the right to use the bathroom safely. They are human beings and sometimes they need to pee because that is how human bodies work.
Because I am a cisgender student, I spoke to several trans students and alumnae — Kelsey Erwin, Alex Wade, Brynn Jellison, and Allister Hall — to get their perspectives on TU’s lack of gender neutral bathrooms.
Kelsey (they/them) is a Philosophy and English major who identifies as neutrois. Alex (he/him) is an English and Gender Studies major who identifies as a trans man. Brynn (they/them) graduated with their Master’s in Mechanical Engineering in 2013, and identifies as genderqueer transfeminine. Allister (he/him) is an Education and English Major, and identifies as a man.
To clarify, someone who identifies as a trans man would be someone who was designated female at birth (DFAB) but is actually a man. Neutrois and genderqueer are both nonbinary identities. The binary refers to “man” and “woman,” so nonbinary folks are neither men nor women.
I asked all participants if they knew of any gender neutral bathrooms on campus. For the most part, they could not think of any. The only person who knew of one was Brynn — they mentioned that the bathroom in the Little Blue House is neutral (which is true). Based on other’s responses, and my own experience on this campus, the Little Blue House bathroom is the only one on campus. In lieu of having neutral, safe bathrooms, Alex referenced seeking out “single-stall, secluded” bathrooms, which he said do exist on campus: Tyrell Hall and the third floor of Chapman Hall.
Kelsey said that although the bathrooms are only one issue among several that trans folks, and trans TU students, face, “it is one more thing in the day that makes [them] sad.” Alex stated that he transitioned during his junior year, so a lot of people on campus knew him as female. Because of this, he says, “when I go into male bathrooms, I get looks. I avoid going in non-single stall bathrooms now.”
As a trans person begins to transition, they receive a legal letter that allows them to go into the bathroom of their true gender. This is a problematic system on a number of levels, not the least of which being that it assumes a gender binary which makes nonbinary identities less visible.
It is also far from perfect — Alex states “I carry [the letter] in my wallet at all times…this isn’t going to stop someone from harassing me in the bathrooms, but if authorities were to be involved they would know I have a right to be [there].”
A number of the folks I spoke to referenced the lack of safety around the bathrooms at TU (and off-campus). Part of this lack of safety is in not having identities respected. Brynn referenced how, “As a feminine leaning individual, I would generally prefer the women’s restroom if only gendered options exist, but as I am generally looked at as male, this comes with its own anxiety and fears of how people will view me and whether altercations could occur.”
Allister said he experiences “panic” about the lack of gender neutral bathrooms on campus, because “I have to deal with either being questioned (or worse) about whether I’m using the correct facilities.”
There is yet another danger to trans folks with the threat of being “outed” based on their choice of bathroom. Allister referenced this, stating, “Since I’m not necessarily ‘out,’ I have to choose whether I want those I know, or strangers, to access private information I’m not confident enough to address just yet.”
This lack of safety could, in many ways, be resolved with the designation of gender neutral bathrooms on campus. Brynn stated, “Gender neutral restrooms remove all of that anxiety and fear and I never have to worry about other people trying to police which restroom I should be in.”
Gender neutral bathrooms create a safer space for all students. The University claims not to discriminate on the grounds of gender identity, but students not being able to safely use a bathroom on campus is a clear-cut example of discrimination.
Allister referenced this, stating, “I feel like the lack of gender neutral bathrooms is a violation of the non-discrimination policy because I cannot perform a basic human function without extreme anxiety. Institutions of education should be a safe place for people of all, and no, genders.”
TU’s anti-discrimination policy is part of the battle. It does make campus better for trans students, at least on the surface. Brynn described it as, “[it] means that I know I (ostensibly) have the university’s support if someone wants to cause an issue about which bathroom I use, but it absolutely does not reduce the anxiety and fear that an altercation could actually take place in the first place.” Although the policy does, on some level, protect trans students and community members, it does not do anything to ensure their physical safety. A policy is one thing, but concrete action is entirely different.
Right now, this university is not a safe place for all of its students. Right now, this university is discriminating against transgender students.
And this is absurd, because part of what is so astounding about the lack of gender neutral bathrooms is how incredibly easy it is to solve.
Both Alex and Kelsey suggested simple solutions. Alex said, “It would be easier if there were at least a couple gender neutral bathrooms, especially in buildings where there are zero single stall bathrooms.” Kelsey suggested buildings have “at least one neutral stall…like the “family” handicap accessible restrooms at airports.”
No one expects the university to build new bathrooms — just re-designate existing ones. At Pride events that are held outside of the Blue House, we designate bathrooms as gender neutral. We go into a building — let’s say Chapman Lecture Hall — and put paper signs on the doors that say “this bathroom is for everyone” or “gender neutral.” It is actually that easy.
I recently attended a conference at OU where the bathrooms were marked “with urinals” and “without urinals.” Both of these changes created safer spaces, and came at literally the cost of a sheet of paper and some tape.
TU states that it does not discriminate against a number of groups. Transgender folks are one of those groups. If TU actually does not discriminate against these students, it will do everything in its power to make this campus safe. Right now, this campus is not safe.
Designating some bathrooms gender neutral is certainly a great start to increasing the safety of all students on this campus.
Having a nondiscrimination policy is fantastic — having a campus that does not discriminate is far more important.