Confusion in a Colman Hall bathroom: Changes in signage re-ignite gender-neutral debate

By Aubrey Klein

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, residents of the North Wing of Colman Hall received a memo slipped under their doors notifying them of a change in the gendering of the bathrooms on the first floor. What had previously been public gender neutral bathrooms on the floor—with individual toilet stalls and shower stalls—have since Oct. 7 been re-gendered so that there is now one male and one female bathroom on the first floor in the North Wing.

According to Assistant Dean of Students for Campus Life Rose Wasielewski, the reasoning behind the change was that, “the bathroom that is currently a women’s bathroom now on the first floor of the North Wing of Colman was supposed to be a women’s bathroom for this academic year and the signage was never updated.”

“When the issue was brought to our attention, we realized the signage needed to be changed right away. The floor is co-ed by room, and there was never supposed to be a gender-neutral/all-gender bathroom and shower facility on that floor,” explained Wasielewski.

According to this statement, the change in bathroom gendering was due to a mislabeling issue. While the official stance of Campus Life acknowledges that there was no reason other than unchanged signage, I am inclined to believe that there were additional reasons and that the gendering of the gender-neutral bathrooms in Colman exists within a wider social context and student experience.

In reaction to the change, I noticed some students expressed disbelief and were upset that what seemed to be a victory of positive change on the part of gender non-conforming students was reverted back to its previous binary form.

Last year, students from Gay, Lesbian or Whatever (GLOW) and the Committee on Diversity Affairs (CODA) led the push for more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus by increasing awareness and drawing up petitions.

One of the main concerns with gendered bathrooms is that they force gender non-conforming individuals to make an uncomfortable choice between male and female every time nature calls. Evidently, it’s important to Lawrence students that everyone, and especially queer or transgender people, feel safe and accepted on campus when going about their daily routines.

Considering the importance of gender-neutral bathrooms for queer and transgender people, I think students have a right to feel slighted by the change that occurred in Colman.

However, the issue isn’t one-sided. As all students undoubtedly know, a bathroom in a college residence hall like Colman is not just a place to relieve yourself, but also the place where you shower and carry out your daily hygiene routines.

In the intimate space of a room like this, a gender-neutral bathroom—which, by virtue of its un-gendered status, anyone can access—presents a whole different set of concerns for those who identify as women.

An article on “Slate” dealing with this very issue stated that “Arguments against neutralizing bathrooms are also most often based in the realm of discomfort—women with histories of sexual assault or rape will be made uncomfortable by the presence of men in the bathroom.” While I agree with that statement, I would also argue that rape culture itself makes many women afraid of sexual assault and rape, whether or not they’ve experienced those acts.

After speaking with a resident of the North Wing of Colman, I became aware of the situation from her point of view. For her, sharing a bathroom with male-identifying students became uncomfortable: Being in a bathrobe or sleepwear brought on discomfort with a man in the bathroom space. There is absolutely no reason that a woman should feel uncomfortable performing her daily routine, at any time of the day or night.

This is also not to say that women are the only ones that face discomfort in shared bathrooms. Men may also feel uncomfortable using the bathroom or showering while there are women in the room. However, apart from women, the question of fear is one that few men have likely faced.

Using the shared bathroom sometimes became a safety concern for the resident, as she tried to dismiss the scary “what if” questions that kept popping into her head.

What if a drunk guy follows me into the bathroom? What if someone tries to look through the cracks in the stall while I’m showering or going to the bathroom? And while this may have been the case in Colman, I would like to clarify that sexual assault and rape occur among members of every gender, and that no one should be denied sensitivity in this regard.

Based on discussions among Lawrence students living in the North Wing, it was not just one person, but several, that felt distressed enough that the issue became a conversation. Interestingly, last year around this same time, Wesleyan University and Brown University faced similar issues surrounding the gender-neutral bathroom question.

In these cases, students took it upon themselves to de-gender bathrooms with makeshift signs. It appears that the debate around gender-neutral bathrooms is a widespread one, and Lawrence isn’t immune.

In the discussion of a sensitive issue such as this, it is hard not to fall into the rhetoric of “choosing sides.” It’s hard not to claim that the re-genderizing of the bathrooms in the North Wing favors some students’ needs over others.

What we need to remember is that no single student’s fear or discomfort is any less valid than another’s. Regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, it is important that all students feel safe, and, if someone feels uncomfortable, we need to listen to them and seek to understand where they are coming from.

In the case of Colman, it seems that the perceived benefit of gender-neutral bathrooms was at odds with its execution in reality. So how can we reconcile these differences?

While the addition of new bathrooms to existing buildings is obviously not an overnight project, one solution that I can see would be to provide single-person gender-neutral bathrooms in each residence hall. That way, a private, safe bathroom would be easily-accessible to all students, no matter where they live.

If students are unhappy with the change in Colman Hall, I would encourage them to hear all sides of the story. But don’t stop there: It is entirely possible for students to affect change on campus, and they should try to work with Campus Life and Administration to seek other solutions.