When most people hear the phrase gender neutral, there are many things that may come to mind. One may think of gender-neutral housing or gender-neutral baby names or even gender-neutral toys. However, have you ever thought about gender-neutral bathrooms?
I had the pleasure of attending the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference 2011 (MBLGTACC), which was hosted at the University of Michigan in February. One of the central themes of this conference was inclusiveness. As a result, all the public bathrooms at the conference were designated as gender neutral. Now, the funny thing about this is that it wasn’t until my third time going to the bathroom that I even recognized I was using a gender-neutral bathroom. Maybe I was fortunate in that I was able to have the bathroom to myself each time. However, I do remember going into the bathroom, standing at the sink washing my hands and seeing a female walk in. At first, I was a bit confused. However, my confusion quickly turned into practicality. If you need to go, than you just need to go and it doesn’t matter where you went. We looked at each other, smiled, and went on our way. As I stepped out, I looked at the sign on the door and recognized that I was using a gender-neutral bathroom. I remembered that a smile came over my face…as I was pleasantly surprised that this was my first recognized experience!
From this point on, I started to pay more attention to how people interacted in the gender-neutral bathrooms. Each time that I went, I noticed that people were too busy rushing to the toilet or washing their hands to really notice other people. I started to compare to my other experiences in using gender specific bathrooms and realized that it was pretty much the same. When people did chat, it was no different than the conversations that would take place in gender specific bathrooms. People greeted each other, conversed in small talk, etc. It was as if their gender made no difference. The men and women carried on like everything was the way it was supposed to be…not recognizing their differences…but recognizing how they were alike. In the end, everyone has to use the bathroom and it doesn’t matter if you wish to stand up or sit down!
I started to talk to others who were going through this same experience. They expressed similar thoughts and how easy it seemed to use gender-neutral bathrooms. But wait…what about reality?
Well, reality quickly set in when we were headed back to Iowa from Michigan. We stopped at a gas station to get something to eat. There was about 35 of us total…men and women. I distinctly remember going into the men’s bathroom and feeling as though something was wrong. I could not put my finger on it. I not only felt that something was wrong…but felt uncomfortable. As I begin to think about why I was uncomfortable, I realized that I was back in reality and that I was using an all male bathroom. I chuckled, because I had gotten so comfortable using the gender neutral bathrooms…in less than 2 days! I mentioned this to another person traveling on the bus with us. He smiled at me and indicated that he was going through the same thing and that he totally would prefer the gender-neutral option any day. What were we to do?
In reality, having gender-neutral bathrooms turned out to be better than sliced bread with peanut butter. The only thing is how can we get the sliced bread to be open enough to add the jelly? In this case, jelly being the rest of our hetero-normative society? I honestly don’t have the answer to this question. However, I believe that it only takes one time trying it to realize that it’s the wave of the future for those of us who serve students.
The 2012 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC) will be held February 10-12, 2012 at Iowa State University.
Rinardo Reddick is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Iowa State University and coordinator for America Reads/America Counts.