In visiting restrooms, trans students face tough choice

For many members of the University’s transgender community, using public restrooms can present a challenging and often alienating dilemma.

By Rhema Hokama

This third installment in our ongoing series on transgender campus trends explores how the University’s efforts to implement single-user restrooms have been received by members of the transgender community.

For many members of the University’s transgender community, using public restrooms can present a challenging and often alienating dilemma.

Their quandary manifests itself when they have to decide between using a facility based on their biological sex or on the gender with which they identify.

“I’ve had people call security on me,” said one fourth-year trans-identified student, who requested anonymity. “I’ve been sent from one [restroom] to the other. ‘Oh, this is the men’s restroom, you should be in the women’s restroom.’ ‘Um, this is the women’s restroom, you should be in the men’s restroom.’ And I’ve dealt with all manners of humiliation. I’ve had people refer to me as ‘it,'” he said.

“I’ve had this experience on campus, and I know it’s one that other people certainly contemplate as an issue every time they go into a restroom. ‘Is this what’s going to happen to me?'” he said.

In 2003, the office of the vice president and dean of students and the office of the provost convened a group of students, staff, and faculty to evaluate LGBTQ student life at the University in response to student concern over the lack of gender and gender identity clauses in the University’s diversity statement. In 2005, the group released a series of recommendations to enhance support for the University’s LGBTQ community. Along with several other issues, the recommendations highlighted the need for more single-user restrooms in campus buildings.

As part of efforts to enhance campus life for transgender students, the group compiled a resource guide with a list of all the existing single-user restrooms on campus and began to identify new locations for single-user restrooms, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Associate Dean of the College Bill Michel said.

“A group of students began advocating for gender-neutral restrooms and worked closely with me and my colleagues. The Regenstein was a place where we added them, and when we built Ratner we made sure there were some single-user restrooms there, and in many other buildings we have renovated and/or built over the last several years, we have always tried to identify locations for single-user restrooms,” he said.

Red Tremmel, a trans-identified Ph.D. candidate in the history department and a resident head in Max Palevsky, spends most of his time researching and writing his dissertation in the Regenstein. Tremmel, who has been at the University since 1996, said that the addition of the single-user restrooms to the library’s upper levels greatly simplified his trips to the bathroom.

“It’s just such a relief for those who don’t fit into categories of male and female. It’s a relief to not have to go into [standard] bathrooms when I’m in the middle of writing my dissertation. I don’t want to have to be dealing with other people’s issues about my gender,” he said.

“It makes a huge difference in people’s lives. A huge difference.”

The newly renovated 5710 Woodlawn building, which houses both the LGBTQ Programming Office and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), also features single-user restrooms.

“One person told me that they pretty much will only use the bathrooms at 5710 South Woodlawn, because that’s the only place on campus where every bathroom is single-user, so you’re not visually isolated from others by choosing to use a single-user restroom,” the anonymous fourth-year said.

Yet despite the University’s response to student requests for single-user restroom facilities, several trans students said that navigating the campus’s bathrooms remains a challenge.

The lack of awareness and publicity of single-user restrooms already in place is problematic for many trans students, the fourth-year said, adding that the many single-user restrooms lie in out-of-the-way locations or bear confusing signs that do not explicitly designate them as single-user.

He explained that because the ground floor of the Regenstein does not have single-user restrooms, many new students might not know to look for the single-user restrooms on the library’s upper levels.

“So essentially you have to already know your way around buildings or you might think that all floors are like the first floor. And it takes time to build up knowledge about campus,” he said.

One first-year trans student said that while she knows that single-user restrooms on campus do exist, the extra effort required to find one discourages her from using them.

“On the University of Chicago website, there’s a list of all gender-neutral bathrooms,” she said. “They’re kind of out of the way and in backward corners. In general it’s a problem finding one. I just go back to my dorm.”

Because single-user restrooms have utility even for non-transgender people—including the disabled and parents with small children—not just members of the trans-community would benefit from the publicizing of existing single-user facilities, the fourth-year said.

“I think there’s a growing recognition, not on this campus in particular, that there are other people who are not transgendered who use those bathrooms. Some people are just pee-shy. Or maybe someone just had really bad stomach problems and wants to be far away from everyone. I don’t feel there’s a need for social camaraderie in the bathroom,” he said.