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Stalls for All

Left or right? For many, finding a restroom is as easy as following a stick figure.

But for some transgender and gender-variant people, picking a restroom can be a daily dilemma. A trans man who is frequently mistaken for female might be caught between compromising his dignity by entering a women’s room and risking hostility from other men who feel that he doesn’t belong in a men’s room. Some people take their chances and enter public restrooms anyway. Others opt to “hold it,” risking serious health problems as a result.

With only men’s and women’s restrooms, the Harvard Law School campus currently forces these challenges on some of its students and guests, and remains a prohibitively hostile environment for others. Gender-neutral bathrooms, also known as unisex or all-gender bathrooms, can provide a much-needed alternative.

Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove and other Law School administrators have been willing to consider offering GNBs on campus. They’ve provided my fellow GNB proponents and me with useful information and input, and we deeply appreciate their involvement. Before moving forward with the upgrade, however, they have asked us to demonstrate student support.

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An upcoming Student Representative Board referendum will therefore gauge interest in a range of potential restroom changes. We urge our fellow students to vote in favor of upgrading three types of facilities: all single-occupancy restrooms, some dorm communal restrooms, and one multi-stall restroom on each academic building floor that lacks single-occupancy facilities (including, for instance, roughly four of the 18 multi-stall restrooms in Wasserstein Hall), with the partitions between stalls enhanced for greater privacy and security.

We are grateful to the many HLS student organizations that have either endorsed this initiative or cosponsored events related to it, including Advocates for Human Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, American Constitutional Society, Black Law Students Association, Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Democrats, Law and Policy Review, Reproductive Justice, Journal of Law and Gender, Lambda, Prison Legal Assistance Project, South Asian Law Students Association, and Women's Law Association. Among the many reasons for this support, we highlight a few.

By diminishing the day-to-day salience of gender and reducing opportunities for us to police each other’s adherence to gender norms, GNBs stand to benefit everyone. Parents could accompany opposite-sex children into public restrooms without hesitation. There would be more private spaces available in which to breastfeed infants. People using wheelchairs, recovering from injuries, or otherwise facing mobility restrictions wouldn’t have to go out of their way to find open restrooms as often. And women could use GNBs to avoid the relatively long lines at existing women’s restrooms.

With widely available GNBs, HLS could also attract more diverse students, staff, faculty, and guests. Janet Halley, the Royall Professor of Law at HLS, noted via email that the lack of GNBs has already “put several of my trans outside-speaker and co-teacher guests through unnecessary stress.” Meanwhile, universities with better accommodations can draw qualified students away from the Law School. “Over the coming years, more and more trans students will be admitted to the law school, and many of them will not enroll when they see our bathrooms,” Professor Halley said. “Why should they [have to] make that their central issue while they are students here?”

Thanks in part to irresponsible rhetoric around other GNB efforts, some of our fellow students may fear that GNBs enable sexual violence. Though well intentioned, this objection is by all appearances unfounded, and obscures the real and painful history of transgender people as frequent victims of abuse. Harvard’s own Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response supports GNBs.

“There is no research to suggest that incidents of sexual violence in restrooms increase with the availability of gender neutral bathrooms,” OSAPR Director Alicia Oeser noted. “In fact, research suggests trans* and gender nonconforming individuals consistently report that their safety is increased by making gender neutral bathrooms available.”

Another common concern is that international students might be especially uncomfortable using GNBs. To some extent, this assertion relies on the incorrect assumption that alternatives to heterosexist and gender-binary-based institutions are uniquely Western or Anglo-derived concepts. Still, we acknowledge that some religious and cultural traditions emphasize separation of men and women. In addition, sharing restroom space with people of other genders might trigger severe stress for some survivors of sexual violence. In light of these concerns, we emphasize that the proposed upgrade would affect a minority of restrooms—men’s and women’s rooms would remain readily available throughout the campus.

Adding GNBs into the mix of Law School accommodations will strengthen our scholarly community and create a more hospitable environment for our project of understanding and improving the law. To learn more, and to voice any questions, concerns, or support, please stop by the GNB petition-signing and information table during lunch over the next two weeks in Caspersen.

Sean M. Cuddihy ’11 is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

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