A recent bill proposed in City Council would require every single-stall bathroom in Philadelphia to be gender-neutral. First District Councilman Mark Squilla introduced the legislation Sept. 9.
Most city owned facilities already use unisex bathrooms. This part of the legislation, however, affects private businesses. If the bill is passed, all public buildings will change their bathrooms and signage within 90 days. An organization’s failure to comply will result in a fine.
In 2013, there were about 30 unisex bathrooms on Main Campus, spanning from dorms to academic buildings.
Dr. Carmen Phelps, director of student engagement, said gender nonconforming individuals and transgender students experience a heightened level of anxiety in situations like selecting a public bathroom.
“There’s a lot of evidence that speaks to the anxiety, the trauma and the stress levels absorbed by students who are forced to choose what bathroom to choose because they are identified by gender status,” Phelps said.
“When you’re talking about public spaces, and you’re going to use a restroom, there are certain challenges that you face being a gender nonconforming individual,” Phelps added. “You’re always mindful when you’re forced to make these choices.”
In the Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey from 2011, 26 percent of approximately 6,500 respondents said they were denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms in an educational setting. Twenty-three percent said they were unable to work out a suitable bathroom situation in a workplace.
Phelps said raised levels of stress and anxiety are a problem for students who are here to learn.
“We want students focused on performing well academically,” she said. “We don’t want them worrying about what bathroom to choose.”
Brad Windhauser, associate professor in the English department, said gender nonconforming individuals require single bathrooms due to society’s generally negative treatment of them.
Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the survey reported discrimination in the workplace, 19 percent reported denial to health care and medical services and 53 percent reported harassment in areas of public accommodation.
“One of the issues is the stigma, that [transgender and nonconforming gender individuals] would feel that they were being singled out and looked upon in a negative way,” Windhauser said. “They were going against society’s norms if they were using the ‘wrong’ bathroom.”
Phelps said despite the overwhelming support, the change is facing underlying opposition on campus.
“There are a lot of folks on campus who are resistant to those kind of changes and who don’t understand the challenges these people face,” she said.
She said the best way to combat the people who do not support nor understand is through education. Phelps added gender nonconforming students will have a better chance to succeed if they are more comfortable on campus and Temple should be an open place for anybody who enters it.
“It’s very much connected to their ability to perform and develop,” she said. “If we’re talking about a socially just college campus then we should all be invested in making every student, no matter who they are, feel adequately supported.”
Phelps said while there are social and political challenges facing the bill, people may be too concerned with the actual change that would be implemented with gender neutral bathrooms.
“What does it mean to take a sign off of a door?” she said.
Jonathan Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonnygilbs96.