Why gender-neutral bathrooms benefit all young people
This is the March 7, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.
Good morning, 8-to-3 readers. I’ve spent the last two weeks reporting on a Long Beach high school’s plan to build a gender-neutral locker room. I assumed this would be a straightforward story about how school facilities’ design is moving in the direction of inclusivity. Instead, I ended up writing about the project being paused after a small group of community members spoke out against it, and what that has to do with an unprecedented wave of legislation that seeks to restrict the rights of transgender youth.
High school students in Long Beach began advocating for multi-stall, all-gender restrooms in 2018. These teens took on the emotionally exhausting task of recounting their experiences of being bullied in bathrooms to school leaders, educators and parents. Many times, their only option was to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office, which was stigmatizing and unintentionally outed students who had not yet shared their gender identities with their classmates. Some kids opted not to go to the bathroom at all, making it hard to concentrate in class — and in some cases leading to urinary tract infections.
The district listened. By January 2020, Long Beach Unified had quietly opened multi-stall bathrooms at three high schools. There was little to no opposition at the time and no press. The district now requires all new school construction to include gender-neutral facilities.
Enter the new aquatics center at Wilson High School, the first facility to be built since this shift. The district conducted focus groups on locker room design with 60 students. Participants, regardless of gender identity, consistently described feeling uncomfortable in the communal showers and changing areas. Many brought up body image and bullying.
Wilson High’s locker room design reflects this feedback. Each stall includes a shower, changing area, bench and storage nook. The partitions between each stall would extend nearly to the ceiling and floor, and waist-high lockers would allow for coaches to easily supervise the space.
Community members began speaking out against the project at Board of Education meetings in early December, just after the right-wing website Breitbart published a piece decrying the plan. Fewer than 20 people publicly voiced opposition to the locker rooms (to learn more about their arguments, I encourage you to read the story). That was still enough for the district to pause the plan while it gathered more input.
I spoke with Christopher Covington, an organizer at Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network who has worked closely with Long Beach students around this issue. It’s likely that many people who oppose gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms don’t know a trans person personally, they said.
“They don’t understand the challenges young trans people face on school campuses, and how creating a facility like this could potentially support them,” Covington told me.
Consider, for example, what it’s like to be a transgender boy in high school. Maybe he’s yet to transition or come out. One day, he chooses to use the restroom that aligns with his gender identity because using the girls’ restroom is emotionally distressing. It’s in this kind of situation where many gender-diverse students are harassed, questioned and — in the worst cases — physically harmed, said Carla Peña, manager of professional development at Gender Spectrum, an organization that works to create gender-inclusive environments for kids and teens.
In 2013, California became the first in the U.S. to enshrine into law the right of transgender students to choose bathroom and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Three years later, the state required all single-occupancy public toilets to be gender-neutral by spring 2017. Although advocates say that this was a step in the right direction, many schools complied with the law by letting students use the bathroom in the nurse’s office, which inevitably singled them out.
Peña estimates that maybe a quarter of high schools nationwide have some sort of gender-neutral bathroom option — and that’s being generous, she said. Most of those are of the nurse’s bathroom variety. In 2019, a national survey by the education organization GLSEN found that 45% of LGBTQ+ students avoided using gender-segregated school bathrooms and 44% avoided locker rooms because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Multi-stall, inclusive facilities remove these barriers, Peña said: “If I’m not worried about getting my basic needs met, or whether or not using the bathroom will out me, I have less anxiety and more energy to be present and learn.”
According to advocates, inclusive facilities benefit all pupils, regardless of gender identity. “We know that the availability of spaces at schools make students overall feel safer,” said Joel Jemino, youth services manager at the Long Beach LGBTQ Center. “It’s a clear message from the school that this is a place where they are included, that — no matter what — they have a right to safety.”
Such bathrooms and locker rooms also serve students with physical disabilities who have caretakers of a different gender. And they teach young people the importance of respecting people in all of their identities, how to share spaces with others, and privacy and boundaries.
Teens seem to get this. School leaders in Long Beach told me that students overwhelmingly support the locker room plan. “They’re like, ‘Why wouldn’t we be doing this?’ ” said Tiffany Brown, the district’s deputy superintendent. The opposition is almost solely led by adults.
The most commonly voiced concern these days against communal, all-gender bathrooms is that students — particularly girls — will be harassed or assaulted by the opposite sex. This belief has roots in the historical argument that trans people are the ones to be feared in bathrooms, advocates told me. But that’s a perspective that wouldn’t be well-received in a politically progressive and LGBTQ-friendly city like Long Beach.
At the end of the day, the safety issue is a moot point, said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality. If students are being harassed in bathrooms, that’s a school-climate issue, not a gender issue.
“Harassment is still illegal in a gender-neutral facility,” he said. “Protections and norms around acceptable behavior still apply.”
An eventful week for California higher education
Cal State officials have launched an independent investigation into how Fresno State University administrators handled sexual harassment complaints against a former campus vice president, according to Times reporters Colleen Shalby and Robert J. Lopez. Chancellor Joseph I. Castro stepped down last month following reports that, as president of Fresno State in 2020, he quietly authorized a $260,000 payout and retirement package for former Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas, who was the subject of complaints of bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment that began in 2014 and continued through 2019.
The California Supreme Court on Thursday decided not to lift an enrollment cap on UC Berkeley, a move that forces one of the nation’s most popular campuses to scramble for ways to avoid what it initially feared could be major cuts to its incoming fall class. The court rejected the University of California’s appeal to stay a lower court ruling issued in August that froze enrollment at Berkeley until the campus more thoroughly examined the impact of its growth on housing, homelessness and noise.
This happened just weeks before it was set to release admission decisions. A university spokesman told my colleague Teresa Watanabe that the campus would meet the cap by offering at least 1,500 incoming first-year and transfer students online enrollment for fall, or deferred admission next January for the spring semester.
The Los Angeles Community College District’s Board of Trustees has backed down from appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court over a lawsuit filed by two blind students who claimed the district failed to properly help them with accommodations to which they are legally entitled. The board voted unanimously not to appeal the 2017 lawsuit and to continue instead with mediation. The case boiled down to a question over whether unintentional discrimination — a lack of accommodation, for example, that inadvertently hinders a person — is a violation of federal law.
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What else we’re reading this week
Curriculum transparency bills are proliferating across the U.S. The legislation would require schools to post all instructional materials online, with the goal of enabling parents who distrust their children’s schools to carefully examine teaching materials — including those on race and racial equity. Washington Post
Frustrated by Oakland Unified School District closures, student leaders are turning their gaze to school board elections. In the Town, 16- and 17-year-olds are now able to vote in these elections that inevitably have so much influence on the quality of their education. Oaklandside
International students from Ukraine living in the U.S. are struggling to balance their studies with painful images from home, including possible war crimes committed by Russian forces against civilians. The 74
Why does it cost a fortune to get the best test for disabilities like ADHD, autism and dyslexia? Such financial barriers prevent many Americans from accessing vital special education services. USA Today
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