Rainbow Alliance petition asks for more gender-neutral bathrooms

Jillian Sandler

More gender-neutral bathrooms will be implemented on campus beginning next academic year, according to Ron Nayler, NU’s associate vice president for Facilities Management.

Nayler said three single-stall gender-neutral restrooms will be constructed between the F and G wings of the Technological Institute and are expected to be completed this fall. He also said there will be some created in the new building for the Bienen School of Music, which is expected to be completed in 2015.

Tech is one building that was specified as lacking these facilities in Rainbow Alliance’s petition for more gender-neutral bathrooms in academic buildings on campus. The petition calls for more spaces where members of the transgender community can feel comfortable using the bathroom.

“The lack is apparent in North Campus buildings such as Tech, Ford, and SPAC, in important South Campus buildings such as Kresge, as well as in many individual dorms,” the petition states. “Depending on an individual’s location on campus, there may be a significant distance from the nearest usable bathroom.”

McCormick freshman and Rainbow Alliance Technology Chair Red Lhota, a transgender student, led a meeting Saturday afternoon to promote the petition.

“Most of the time in my daily life, I don’t get the privilege of feeling safe or unworried or not awkward in bathrooms,” Lhota said. “It makes going to the bathroom a much more difficult experience than it should be. One of the reasons is that it’s not always safe. If I walk into a female restroom and am perceived as male, it’s not safe. If I walk into the male restroom, I don’t blend in.”

The petition was launched May 3 and had 423 signatures as of Tuesday evening. Rainbow Alliance Co-President Morgan Richardson, a Communication junior, said the group wants to obtain 500 signatures before it presents the petition to Patricia Telles-Irvin, the vice president for student affairs.

In an email to The Daily last week, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard wrote that NU administrators always take into account “the evolving needs of our community” in decision-making processes. He also wrote that he hopes Rainbow Alliance will use the petition to promote conversations within the NU community.

“I am not sure who the Rainbow Alliance plans to present their petition to, but I do hope that they seek to engage members of the University community in discussion, including those who have oversight of the academic buildings mentioned in the petition, as conversation about these issues are important – often more important than any listing of demands,” Howard wrote. “Folks need to understand the issues involved, address the challenges and see what we might do collectively to address the concerns.”

According to a map of the NU campus presented at Saturday’s meeting, the academic buildings that currently have gender-neutral bathrooms are the Frances Searle Building, Cresap Laboratory, the Women’s Center, University Hall, Crowe Hall, the Music Administration Building, Lunt Hall and Patten Gymnasium.

Nayler said one reason more gender-neutral bathrooms have not been implemented in other buldings on campus is lack of space. The Illinois Plumbing Code specifies a certain number of men and women’s bathroom fixtures depending on a building’s size and expected occupancy, and gender-neutral bathrooms do not count toward that total, Nayler said.

He said implementing single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms with a lock on the door would be in accordance with Illinois law, but multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms would present issues due to the Illinois Plumbing Code and possible objection from others in the University community.

“You can’t just take a men’s room or a women’s room and say now we have a gender-neutral bathroom because Illinois law will stop you from doing that,” Nayler said.

More legal issues also present a roadblock for the University in implementing multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms. Though the Illinois Human Rights Act protects access without discrimination to “public accommodations” such as restaurants, hotels or stadiums for transgender people, these accommodations do not necessarily include restrooms, which the act calls “distinctly private.”

Associate General Counsel John Calkins said NU’s Office of General Counsel, which supplies legal services to the University, has not looked into the legality of multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms.

“If you still have single-stall bathrooms available for transgender individuals, then that solves the problem without creating other problems,” Nayler said. “I think if you poll the students and faculty (about the installation of) multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms, I don’t think the majority would say that’s appropriate.”

McCormick senior Alex Madjar signed the petition and said he supports having multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms on campus because they will benefit not only the transgender community, but also the broader population.

“Rainbow Alliance is thinking of the transgender issue, which is really important … but I think people should understand there’s a larger gender equality issue there than just making it fair for transgender people as well,” Madjar said.

Lhota said Rainbow Alliance is currently seeking to have single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms implemented, but hopes that multi-stall bathrooms will be an option in the future. He also noted the current campaign is specifically for academic buildings and not for dorms.

“Because dorms have showers and such, it becomes more touchy,” Lhota said. “One step at a time.”

Nayler said at this point, the most practical way to appeal to the needs of the transgender community is to install single-stall facilities.

“I can’t tell you about the future of Illinois law, but we don’t think (implementing multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms) will make sense today, ” Nayler said. “The way to deal with that is in addition to standard men and womens’ bathrooms is to install single-stall bathrooms.”

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