On the morning of Tuesday, April 16, 2016, the first day Santee Education Complex’s gender-neutral bathroom officially opened, things kicked off quietly. “People were just using it. The atmosphere was calm, everyone was just doing what they were there to do,” said junior Kween Robinson. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
Yet it was a big deal.
Santee’s gender-neutral bathroom opened in the midst of a national debate over gender identity and bathroom use.
The same day Santee’s gender-neutral bathroom opened to students, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with a transgender male student who argued that his school district’s decision to restrict his choice of restroom violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972.
The Fourth Circuit includes North Carolina, where schools now find themselves in a Catch-22: violate state law or violate Title IX and risk losing millions in federal education money. The ruling provides greater support for the Obama administration’s claim that federal civil rights law applies to gender identity.
While LGBT advocates have waged campaigns to expand the rights of transgender students, right-wing legislators have sponsored a number of so-called “bathroom bills” that require transgender people, including students, to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, regardless of how they identify. So far, North Carolina is the only state to have passed a law restricting restroom access for transgender students.
Creating a Safe Space
Santee’s centrally-located, 15-stall bathroom is open to everyone. And everyone came. “Everyone was smiling and happy and going to the restroom…I wanted to cry,” said junior Monique Garcia. For Garcia, Robinson and other members of Santee’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), the moment marked the culmination of a four-month campaign that involved petitions, social media and hard conversations with students, administrators and their own parents.
Back in January, GSA members sat down to talk about unsafe spaces inside Santee. Bathrooms led the list. They were places where “people felt uncomfortable, stared at, heard little whispers about them and stuff,” said Garcia. A recently-transitioned transgender student had been stopped by a school custodian for trying to use a girls’ restroom.
Such experiences are common in schools. A 2013 student survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) showed that more than one-third of LGBT students avoid school bathrooms because they feel unsafe there. Nearly 60 percent of transgender students surveyed reported having been forced to use a bathroom or locker room consistent with their legal sex.
For students whose gender identities—gender fluid, agender, transgender, and more—don’t fit neatly into the cultural binary of male and female, gender-specific restrooms present both an internal dilemma and a potential site for harassment.
Improving School Culture
At Santee, located in South Central Los Angeles, the GSA had already put in years of work to improve school culture and had seen success. “Students walk around with rainbows on their shirts all the time,” said Josè Lara, Santee’s dean and GSA advisor. “You see same-sex couples hanging out on the quad after school. Students are very accepting.”
Addressing the restroom issue seemed like the logical next step. “Some students don’t feel comfortable going into gender-binary restrooms,” said sophomore Juliet Dominguez. The GSA came up with a solution: create a gender-neutral restroom. “We wanted to give them another option so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.”
To ensure students’ safety, GSA members wanted the gender-neutral restroom in a high-traffic area with a strong adult presence. The restroom that fit those criteria was a former girls’ restroom with multiple stalls. Most gender-neutral restrooms, including the recently-opened White House restroom, are single-stall. But in most public school buildings, single-stall restrooms are few and far between.
“We didn’t want the restroom to be relegated to a nurse’s office or an adult restroom at a far end of campus,” Lara said. “If students are central to our campus, the restroom where they feel safe should be central to our campus as well.”
The student organizers also thought through other issues. The gender-neutral restroom is only open during passing periods. Other restrooms on campus are still gender-specific. A donor provided the new sign designating the restroom as gender-neutral, so the change came at no cost to the school. Staff already make quick spot-checks of all student restrooms during the day; this one will be more frequently monitored in its early days of operation, “while people are learning the norms,” said Lara.
“Is This Just for Transgender Students?”
Inspired by MTV’s Laci Green, the students adopted the campaign slogan, “It’s just a toilet.” They covered campus in posters and used the #itsjustatoilet hashtag on social media. “I think the slogan calmed people’s nerves and helped people think about it in a different way,” said Lara.
GSA members made their case by collecting more than 700 petition signatures from Santee’s nearly 1,800 students and presenting their proposal to the student council and to principal Martin Gomez.
The question students asked GSA members most frequently was, “Is this just for transgender students?”
To answer them, Robinson liked to draw an analogy between home and school. “When you go home do you label your restroom for girls or boys? No. You just use the restroom,” she said. “School is like your second home. Why should you have a label on the restroom in your second home?”
Back at Santee, within-school response to the gender-neutral restroom has been positive. But on Tuesday afternoon, a small group of hecklers carrying a sign saying “Homo Sex Is Sin” harassed students as they were leaving school. In response, community groups banded together to publicize a rally for Wednesday afternoon.
The Santee students had one message for their peers in North Carolina: fight back. “Don’t let them oppress you,” said Robinson. “At the end of the day, you’re the students who have to walk the halls, use the restrooms and go to class. Use your voice.”