Murphy’s soft voice—so soft that it is nearly drowned out by the hustle and bustle of Algiers Cafe—takes a serious note when she discusses her identity and its consequences. As she talks about gender neutral bathrooms, her eyes gaze down at her lap and she becomes introspective—it’s clear that this is an issue she has carefully considered many times before.
“Before I cut my hair short I remember seeing the gender neutral bathrooms in Canaday basement and thinking, ‘I wonder who those are for?’” Murphy says. “Now I guess I know that those bathrooms are for me.”
According to a 2006 report compiled by Queer Students and Allies (then called the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian Transgender and Supporters Alliance), Harvard offers 73 gender neutral bathrooms—all of which are single-stalled—on campus.
But Trans Task Force student leader Jia Hui Lee ’12 says that these bathrooms are inconveniently located, with several main academic buildings lacking a gender neutral bathroom—including the Science Center and Sever Hall.
“So many people take it for granted that they can use a public bathroom,” Lee says. “For those who are trans and gender non-conforming, it’s much more difficult to use a bathroom in public.”
Critics of expanding access to gender neutral bathrooms say that they increase the likelihood of sexual assaults in such spaces, but the concept of individuals of different sexes sharing the same restroom is not all that radical, according to Marco Chan ’11, Queer Students and Allies Co-Chair.
“Everyone lives their gender in different ways, so this is everyone’s business,” he says with an uncharacteristic note of anger. Chan is arguably the most prominent face of the queer rights movement on campus, and this media-savvy spokesperson rarely gets angry in interviews. This is an issue, however, of paramount importance to his organization. “We all know people who bring their small children of a different sex into the bathroom, people who have caretakers of a different sex assist them in the bathroom. Gender neutral bathrooms will simplify the way we all live our lives. This is not just transgender or queer people’s business.”
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE
With House Renewal set to kick off in mid-2012 with the renovation of Old Quincy, the Trans Task Force has made efforts to push the administration to take into account during the renovation the trans community’s needs for gender neutral bathrooms.
Lee, who says House common spaces already offer a good number of gender neutral bathrooms, hopes that the College will further increase its offerings despite arguments that point out Harvard’s trans population is relatively small.
“This is a matter of principle, not a matter of numbers,” Lee says.
The administration has been “receptive” to the Trans Task Force’s appeals, according to Lee. He is optimistic that after House Renewal renovations gender neutral bathrooms will be even more accessible.
The inclusion of gender neutral bathrooms in House Renewal “is part of our planning process and we do not anticipate any substantial problem,” writes Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson in an email.
When asked about the possibility of adding gender neutral bathrooms to academic buildings, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds and FAS Dean Michael D. Smith said that FAS is constrained by Cambridge and Massachusetts zoning laws as academic buildings are public spaces. There is “a lot more leeway” when creating gender neutral bathrooms in residential facilities like the Houses, according to Hammonds.
“Because of the limitations imposed by the state plumbing codes, there are real limitations in academic buildings,” Hammonds said.
But gender neutral bathrooms are “something they are aware of,” according to FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal.
Chan, encouraged by the College’s receptiveness, says that everyone on Harvard’s campus should be able to access public restrooms comfortably and without incident.
“We should all be able to make a decision as simple as walking into a bathroom,” Chan says. “Why is this something we need to regulate?”
—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at email@example.com.