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Safe Bathrooms For All

By Marco Chan

There are few things more basic than using the bathroom.  We may gloss over it or laugh at it in conversation, but no matter who we are, how we look, or what we call ourselves, we all depend on that resource to get through the day.

For many people—including many Harvard students—this simple activity is fraught with challenges.  Last week’s Crimson editorial completely overlooked these challenges, ignoring that gender-neutral bathrooms are a matter of dignity and safety for those in our community who don’t conform to traditional gender norms. At the same time, The Crimson treated unsubstantiated risks of sexual harassment and assault against women as though they were facts, without offering any evidence for their claims.

In fact, non-gender-conforming individuals are the ones who have reason to fear physical harm when they go to the restroom. A large-scale study by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission found that transgender people were frequently chased by security guards or physically assaulted for “being in the wrong bathroom.” The harassment is so severe and regular that many even avoid drinking water in public places, which can lead to dehydration and problems with the urinary tract. Nor are these problems exclusive to transgender people. Men and women who look or dress differently than gender expectations would have them look also face difficulty, ranging from demeaning stares to explicit threats.

Gender-neutral bathrooms can reduce these risks by providing facilities where none of us are subject to scrutiny. We all shuttle between classes and extracurricular activities, so it’s unrealistic and unfair to limit the number of restrooms some of our peers can use.

More than 150 college campuses already have gender-neutral bathrooms–Oberlin has at least one in every residence hall, and many Yale dorms have multi-stall ones. At these schools, most students hardly notice the change. One female Oberlin student said, “I wasn’t completely sold on the idea…but they turned out not to be an issue for me. The toilet stalls (of course) lock, and the shower curtains (of course) go all the away across….” In fact, Oberlin students vote each year on whether their hall restrooms will be gender-neutral—and most of them say yes. If Oberlin—and especially Yale—can live comfortably with gender-neutral bathrooms, we can too.  As it happens, with the more-than 90 such restrooms Harvard currently has, we already do.

Some suggest that gender-neutral bathrooms put women at high risk of sexual assault. We should always take questions of safety very seriously, but there is no evidence to suggest this claim is true. The San Francisco Police has not recorded any instances of assault in gender-neutral bathrooms, and neither has Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. “Rather,” their director adds, “the message the availability of these bathrooms sends to the campus is the inclusive atmosphere OSAPR supports.” The assumption that gender-specific bathrooms protect women is itself faulty.  Bathroom signs do not stop those who want to harm women from entering; they create the dangerous illusion that there is protection.  For issues of safety, we must look to our campus police, and to the environment our community creates.

In many ways, that environment would be better with more gender-neutral bathrooms. Our campus has many families among students, tutors, and staff, who would appreciate being able to assist their children in the restroom regardless of gender.  Disabled people with different-gender caretakers would also have an easier time.  Plus, it’s sometimes just easier not having to worry about the gender of a restroom–like when you’re in Lamont and have to climb a flight of stairs to relieve yourself.

Harvard has made a commitment to ensure the safety of its students, regardless of their gender identity.  Gender-neutral bathrooms are an important step towards meeting that commitment, and a responsibility Harvard must assume more proactively in both existing buildings and future construction. Equal access to safe and comfortable restrooms should not be based on numbers—low visibility of gender non-conforming folks on campus is a symptom of this need, not a justification for continued lack of access. All of us all should be able to use a bathroom, stress-free.

Marco Chan ’11, a Romance Languages and Literatures concentrator in Quincy House, is the Co-Chair of the Queer Students and Allies.

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