De-Gender Bathrooms at Seattle University School of Law

De-Gender Bathrooms at Seattle University School of Law

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Seth Alexander started this petition to Dean Annette Clark

Currently, there are only two gender-neutral bathrooms that are accessible to all students in the Seattle University School of Law, and they are located right next to each other. If a student wants to use one of the gender-neutral bathrooms, they must enter the library on the second floor and then use the stairs or elevator inside the library to get to the library’s third floor. There is no other route.

Other gender-neutral bathrooms in Sullivan Hall do exist, but they are not for all students. For example, there is a single-stall bathroom in the clinic, but it is difficult to imagine a non-clinic student feeling comfortable entering that workspace to use the bathroom. As another example, there are gender-neutral bathrooms on the fourth floor where the majority of faculty offices are, but no student would feel comfortable going to the fourth floor just to use the bathroom.

The practical effect of having the only accessible gender-neutral bathrooms in the building on the third floor of the library is that if I, a student who does not feel comfortable using a gendered bathroom, need to use the bathroom during my classes on the court-level, I must walk up a total of three flights of stairs using two different staircases. My classmates, the overwhelming majority of whom are cisgender and feel safe using the gendered bathrooms, just have to walk down the hall.

Due to the disproportionate amount of class time that I would miss, I do not really have the option of using the bathroom during class. Most days, I schedule my bathroom breaks and regulate my liquid intake. Sometimes, on busy days when I do not have a break, I will just wait until I get home.

So I have decided to send a letter to Dean Annette Clark of Seattle University School of Law and the rest of the administration. My purpose and intent is to raise this issue as a problem for trans students because most people don't know that this is a problem, which is completely understandable. That's why it's important for me to use my voice as a marginalized person -- I see things that others don't, and the same goes for me and the ways where I have privilege. I want to explain why this is a problem: gendered bathrooms are unsafe for trans people because harassment and physical and sexual violence is common. Although I am not aware of any transphobic violence that has occurred in the law school, the fact remains that violence is possible and that is not a risk that I am brave enough to take.

So I want to propose a solution:

We should de-gender the gendered bathrooms by remodeling them and replacing the urinals in the men’s bathrooms with stalls and removing signage that indicates that bathrooms may only be used by particular genders. This eliminates the problem completely. If bathrooms are not gendered, then no one can be harassed or harmed for using the “wrong” one. An excellent example of what this could look like is Optimism Brewing Company on Capitol Hill – the sinks are communal, but the stalls are more like tiny rooms than bathroom stalls.

You can read the full letter below:

To: Dean Annette Clark

Re: Equal Bathroom Access


Hello,

 

My name is Seth Alexander, and I am writing to you to address the issue of bathroom access in Sullivan Hall. I am a transgender student, and I write to you on behalf of all transgender and gender-non-conforming law students, with support from my fellow students as noted at the end of this letter.

I want first to recognize the steps that Seattle University School of Law has taken to make itself more welcoming to marginalized students, including transgender students. For example, among faculty, there is a genuine commitment to supporting trans students by using our names and respecting how we want to be formally addressed. Speaking only for myself, I have felt respected by the majority of faculty, staff, and administration. And most saliently, not every educational institution has gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms available for student use, but we do. These are not small accomplishments, and I do not want to dismiss the progress that we have made.

But there is still work to be done. As a trans student, I wanted to lift up this concern on behalf of myself and all other trans and gender-non-conforming students who may not feel safe or comfortable using their voices.

 

Currently, there are only two gender-neutral bathrooms that are accessible to all students in Sullivan Hall, and they are located right next to each other. If a student wants to use one of the gender-neutral bathrooms, they must enter the library on the second floor and then use the stairs or elevator inside the library to get to the library’s third floor. There is no other route.

Other gender-neutral bathrooms in Sullivan Hall do exist, but they are not for all students. For example, there is a single-stall bathroom in the clinic, but it is difficult to imagine a non-clinic student feeling comfortable entering that workspace to use the bathroom. As another example, there are gender-neutral bathrooms on the fourth floor where the majority of faculty offices are, but no student would feel comfortable going to the fourth floor just to use the bathroom.

The practical effect of having the only accessible gender-neutral bathrooms in the building on the third floor of the library is that if I, a student who does not feel comfortable using a gendered bathroom, need to use the bathroom during my classes on the court level, I must walk up a total of three flights of stairs using two different staircases. My classmates, the overwhelming majority of whom are cisgender and feel safe using the gendered bathrooms, just have to walk down the hall.

Due to the disproportionate amount of class time that I would miss, I do not really have the option of using the bathroom during class. Most days, I schedule my bathroom breaks and regulate my liquid intake. Sometimes, on busy days when I do not have a break, I will just wait until I get home.

 

Anyone can use the non-gendered bathrooms, and everyone should feel free to use them. But when there are only two toilets in the entire building that I feel safe using and when getting to those toilets is a huge inconvenience, I feel worthless when I make the trek to them and then have to wait in line. For the people who use the library bathrooms while they are studying, the bathrooms are a luxury because they do not have to go up to the fourth floor or to the second floor and leave the library entirely to use those bathrooms. I do not have any other option.

 

Unfortunately, gendered bathrooms are not safe places for people who are trans. A 2013 study from UCLA found that 70% of transgender respondents had been denied access, harassed, or assaulted when attempting to use the bathroom.[1] A 2015 study involving a much larger sample size found similar results: almost 60% of respondents have avoided using public bathrooms for fear of confrontation due to previous experiences of harassment and assault.[2] 12% reported experiencing verbal harassment in the past year, and 1% reported sexual assault.[3] It is reasonable to assume that the actual rate of harassment and violence is much higher than reported.

 

To my knowledge, no one has experienced violence at the law school for using a bathroom, but the numbers show that using a gendered bathroom anywhere is a calculated risk. The core problem is that “gender segregation immediately creates a system of surveillance and policing of public spaces based on subjective assessments of a person’s gender and gender expression.”[4] Harassment and violence are the punishments for nonconformity. Minority stress – the harm produced by discrimination, whether through major stressors such as job loss or the “everyday experiences of disrespect and disparate treatment” – is quite literally built into our environment for trans people.[5]

 

Bathrooms may seem to pale in comparison to many of the problems we face in modern society, but the bathroom has always been a place where social stratification is practiced. Until the Victorian era, public bathrooms were reserved for men, so women were not able to easily travel far from their homes.[6] This type of gender segregation was rooted in the “moral ideology concerning the appropriate role and place for women in society” and has held women back for the majority of Western history.[7] Similarly, during the Jim Crow era, bathrooms and public pools were segregated by race based on the belief that people of color were diseased and dangerous.[8]

 

These are imperfect analogies, but they serve to show that bathrooms have always been politicized and have always been a place where social hierarchies are enforced. The restriction of access to public bathrooms is an indispensable tool of marginalization. These examples also show that this is not a new conversation. And thankfully, this history teaches us that we can survive this sometimes-uncomfortable conversation.

 

But the question remains, what is the solution? How can we offer all students equal access to bathroom facilities in the law school?

 

The answer is simple – de-gender the gendered bathrooms by remodeling them and replacing the urinals in the men’s bathrooms with stalls and removing signage that indicates that bathrooms may only be used by particular genders. This eliminates the problem completely. If bathrooms are not gendered, then no one can be harassed or harmed for using the “wrong” one. An excellent example of what this could look like is Optimism Brewing Company on Capitol Hill – the sinks are communal, but the stalls are more like tiny rooms than bathroom stalls.

 

The transition will be uncomfortable at first. Gender-segregated bathrooms have been a staple of Western society for centuries. The idea still makes me a little uncomfortable, and I am the one proposing it. Change is scary, and growth is uncomfortable – they call it “growing pains” for a reason – but change and growth, and the accompanying discomfort, is necessary to build a safer and more equal society. Seattle University School of Law tells its students that it is committed to social justice, but in a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society, increasing access to power and education for marginalized people will always feel uncomfortable.

 

I know that living our values comes with practical considerations because we are all at the mercy of our budgets, and I would welcome the opportunity to partner with the administration so that we can navigate the particulars together. Perhaps converting the court-level or first floor bathrooms first is the best route because students spend the majority of their time on those floors. And even before that, removing the signage that indicates the gender of the bathroom and preventing the use of the urinals would let the school’s culture of gendered bathrooms begin to change.[9]

 

I also understand that construction can take time, so while construction is being planned and when it is taking place, there are additional steps that the administration can take to reduce the stress on trans students regarding bathroom access. The following is not meant to be an exclusive list of actions that the administration could take but is meant to be a place to begin:

 

§  Post notices of the existence of gender-neutral bathrooms on all noticeboards along with a map or list of their locations

§  Include a similar notice and map/list on the law school website. The university’s website mentions that gender-neutral bathrooms are available and indicates that there is at least one in Sullivan Hall, but to my knowledge, the law school’s website does not have any similar information. A map or list of the locations of the bathrooms would be especially helpful because I have no idea where all of them are and I’ve been around since June 2017.

 

In conclusion, bathrooms are an unavoidable part of all of our lives, and everyone should have reliable, convenient access to bathrooms. This is merely the next step that the law school can take to realize its goal of advancing social justice. De-gendering bathrooms is good for everyone of all genders. In the meantime, increasing knowledge and awareness of the gender-neutral bathrooms in the law school is equally important.

 

There are times when the work of social justice is hard. Thankfully, this time, it is an easy decision to make. As noted below, this letter and proposal enjoys broad support among the student body. If you are interested, I have set up a petition so you can see that you will not need to worry about push-back from the student body. I am confident that our faculty will be of the same mind as our students, and I hope that the administration will stand in solidarity and make this tangible commitment to social justice.

 

For me, this is not an intellectual debate about how to be woke. This is personal. This is my life. It is unfair. I want to be able to focus on surviving my 3L year so I can attempt to survive the bar, just like everyone else. I do not want to have to plan my bathroom breaks in advance. I do not want to have to regulate my caffeine intake for any reason other than its impact on my health.

 

Thank you for taking the time to listen to my concerns, and I look forward to hearing from you and hopefully working with you.

 

Warmly,

 

Seth Alexander

J.D. Candidate, Class of 2020

 

Written with the support of:

 

The American Indian Law Journal

Asian Pacific Islander Law Student Association

Entertainment and Sports Law Association

Environmental Law Society

Gideon’s Army

Latinx Law Student Association

Moot Court

National Lawyers Guild – Seattle University Chapter

OUTLaws

Public Interest Law Foundation

Seattle Journal for Social Justice

The Seattle Journal of Technology, Environmental, and Innovation Law

Seattle University Law Review

Seattle University School of Law Student Bar Association



[1] Rigoberto Hernandez, Transgender People Are Harassed and Assaulted in Public Bathrooms, Survey Says, Williams Institute: UCLA School of Law (June 25, 2013), https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/press/transgender-people-are-harassed-and-assaulted-in-public-bathrooms-survey-says/
[2] Daniel Trotta, U.S. Transgender People Harassed in Public Bathrooms: Landmark Survey, Reuters (Dec. 7, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-lgbt-survey/u-s-transgender-people-harassed-in-public-restrooms-landmark-survey-idUSKBN13X0BK
[3] Id.
[4] Jody L. Herman, Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives, Journal of Public Management, 77 (Spring 2013).
[5] Id. at 78.
[6] Stephanie Pappas, The Weird History of Gender-Segregated Bathrooms, Live Science (May 9, 2016), www.livescience.com/54692-why-bathrooms-are-gender-segregated.html
[7] Id.
[8] Mark Joseph Stern, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Transgender Rights Brief is a Trenchant History Lesson, Slate (Mar. 3, 2017), https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/03/naacp-ldfs-trans-rights-brief-is-a-trenchant-history-lesson.html
[9] This is a suggestion of an interim measure, not a final solution. Half-hearted and incomplete action reinforces transphobia because it shows that the action was only meant to placate someone who complained. On the other hand, fully de-gendering the bathrooms demonstrates a commitment to trans students and a more just world. I point this out only for the sake of clarity. I am confident that the school administration walks the walk in addition to talking the talk.

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