October 31, 2012

WTH? Athens

When You Gotta Go

Instead of studying, curious reader and business major Anthony Esposito is thinking about bathrooms. Specifically, he's wondering about the bathroom on the third floor of Brooks Hall at the University of Georgia. It used to be a regular, three-stall ladies' bathroom, but suddenly a sign declaring it a unisex facility appeared, along with a lock on the outside door. What gives? To my surprise, research into Anthony's question led me down a rabbit hole of gender issues, bathroom etiquette and laws about equal access.

It turns out that Anthony isn't the only one who is thinking about the bathroom in Brooks Hall. This nondescript facility in the back corner of the building is famous across the nation for being usable by either gender. Safe 2 Pee, "a nationwide network of gender neutral bathrooms," lists Brooks Hall alongside a slew of other unisex facilities in our town, and several other web forums feature posts from users giddy about its existence. I spend some time wondering why there's a need for "a nationwide network of gender neutral bathrooms," and why on Earth it would ever be "Unsafe 2 Pee." How risky could it be? Then I read the websites a little more closely, and things start to make sense.

The unisex bathroom at Brooks Hall.

A call to Aaron Saiama at UGA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Resource Center clarifies things even more. Aaron tells me that there are approximately 30 transgendered students on campus, nearly all of whom will eventually need to tinkle. Finding a place to go when you look and dress like a woman—most of the students have transitioned from male to female, but are anatomically male—could range from uncomfortable to dangerous, depending on whom you're sharing a bathroom with. So, the LGBT Resource Center teamed up with the offices of Student Affairs and Institutional Diversity to change some of the bathrooms on campus to unisex facilities. This means that women or men can use these bathrooms, either separately or (gasp!) at the same time. The lock on the door provides privacy for folks who don't want people of either gender walking in on them while they're doing their business, something many gassy but non-transgendered bathroom users might also appreciate.

Now, before you get all "political correctness has gone too far spending my taxpayer dollars on bathrooms for perverts why can't everyone just be normal I fought a war Google Ron Paul" on me, consider this. It costs 12 bucks to get a new "unisex" sign for outside the bathroom and $50 for a lock on the door. If there are 30 transgendered students at UGA, that means the administration has spent a whopping $2.06 per student to ensure that everyone on campus can pee in peace. That seems like a very reasonable deal, but is this accommodation really necessary in the first place? How big of an issue is this, really?

"I actually never had a problem using the women's restroom," says UGA's one transgendered staff member, a woman who works in Brooks Hall and wishes to remain anonymous. "It was the natally born women who had the issue. They perceived it as a man being in the restroom with them, sort of a peeping Tom kind of thing, which is silly. I am legally considered a woman. I present as a woman. I am a woman, end of story. And besides, the bathroom has stalls, and doors. If I'm hanging out in that bathroom to get my jollies, I'm going to be disappointed. All you can see are shoes."

I strap my baby in the stroller and walk through campus to Brooks Hall, hoping to interview the owners of some of these shoes. As I'm walking, several thoughts occur to me. First, I wonder which would be creepier for the typical bathroom user: a transgendered person who honestly just wants to use the restroom, or a lady who lurks in the bathroom with her baby, accosting people as they exit their stalls. Second, I realize that all the women who were upset over a transgendered woman's presence in the restroom will now have to deal with the possibility of actual men walking in on them, since now either gender may use the restroom. Perhaps if these women had been a little more understanding, or a little less pee-shy, they'd have a real, though unique, woman as a stallmate rather than having to share the space with Barry from the mailroom.

Finally, I think about the issue of invisible privilege. Honestly, it never occurred to me that which bathroom to use would be an issue for anyone. The staff member I spoke with told me that "transgendered people aren't being transgendered for fun," and I imagine how I would feel if the basic facts of my existence—say, what gender or color I was, whom I loved, or what physical limitations I had—made even the smallest daily activities fraught with difficulty. I get a tiny taste of what this might be like as I approach Brooks Hall with my stroller and find that the quickest way up the hill to the building is via a steep set of stairs. I watch the students stream around me, no doubt on their way to uncomplicated experiences in restrooms that make perfect sense, and mutter angrily. "What about people who can't climb stairs?" I think. "What are we supposed to do?"

Obviously, not every person on campus can require that things be set up just so to suit them. But when it comes to basic functioning—the ability to get into a building or to use the restroom once you're there—a little consideration is warranted. The staff member I spoke with had nothing but praise for the university's willingness to work with her. And though I was unable to find any actual bathroom users to talk to on the day I visited, it's possible that the lock on the door and the presence of an additional ladies' room nearby mitigates the concerns of the other women in the building. I hope so. If there's one thing I've learned from this article, it's that everybody needs a safe place to pee.

So, there you go, Anthony Esposito. A complex answer to a simple question. Feel free to use the unisex facility any time you want to. It's there for you and anyone else who needs it. But you never know who you'll run into in there, so wear your best shoes.

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