A few months ago, Queer Alliance’s political coordinator, freshman Ezra Buck, needed to use the restroom. What would otherwise have been a five-minute task turned into a 15-minute ordeal. He walked down to the second floor of Lone Mountain to the only all-gender single stall restroom available in the main building to find it out of order, prompting Buck to walk down the steps and nearly two blocks to the Education Building to use their all-gender restroom.
Situations comparable to Buck’s were the impetus for sophomore Sage Hapke, ASUSF’S gender and sexuality representative, to draft a bill in Aug. 2017 calling for all restrooms – multi-stall and single-stall – to be all-gender spaces. Hapke said, “I worked with all the queer identified spaces on campus to make sure it was inclusive. I got it passed in Senate, then sent it to the administration and student life. That’s when I got a lot more pushback, so I had a lot of conversations with SDS [Student Disability Services], MSA [Muslim Student Association], different culturally focused clubs who supported the resolution, and then I had a meeting with [President] Fitzgerald. The response was basically no.”
The bill failed at the USF Board of Trustees’ meeting after passing unanimously through Senate because of a concern for other identities whose comfort may be compromised without gendered spaces. “The identities talked about were female-identified Muslim women who wear the hijab, so I met with MSA. We talked about ways of fixing it and making it more inclusive of cultural backgrounds,” said Hapke. Her proposed solution was to build sinks and mirrors into handicap stalls, but it did not materialize. “The new thing we’ve been asking is that the first floors or more commonly used floors of a building be gender-inclusive in multi-stall units, and then the rest of them to be gender-binary,” she said. “The whole pushback there is ‘well, what about student tours or donors? What if they come and see that and think every restroom is gender-neutral and they feel uncomfortable?’”
USF President Fitzgerald said in an email interview, “Progress is not failure, and compromise is the heart of democracy.”
While Hapke was originally pushing for all-gender restrooms across campus, QA’s president, sophomore Eli Ramos, understood the need for gendered spaces. “Certainly, it is important for there to be women’s spaces because women have been using bathrooms to stay safe because men can’t enter that space, but that also means we have to understand the importance of gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender and gender non-conforming people and how there should also be a safe place for them,” they said. Ramos was not involved with drafting the bill, but they were consulted when Hapke needed more buy-in.
Ramos said the proposal is also about practicality. “There are very few gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, the accessibility of them is not great, and they’re often co-opted by cisgender people because they’re private, they’re bigger, they’re nicer,” they said. “It ends up being that the usage of them is limited as well. The reason why we’re buying in for more gender-inclusive bathrooms on campus is for that, and also it is really important to normalize having gender-inclusive bathrooms.”
The issue of creating gender-inclusive restrooms has generated nuanced discussions among other institutions as well. At the end of March, the Exploratorium on Pier 15 conducted thought experiments to break down the construct of gendered spaces. However, the Exploratorium’s approach to the issue was different than the ASUSF resolution. Rather than coming from an activist lens, the Exploratorium was interested in transgressing the bathroom as a social space and asking visitors to consider it as simply a space to meet physiological needs.
Instead of male and female restrooms, the gendered signs were changed to “short hair” and “long hair,” while the single stall sign was “hair length neutral.” Sam Sharkey, a USF film studies alumni, and Shafer Mazow, who conceptualized the experiments at the Exploratorium, consider them “empathy exercises.” After museum visitors walked out of the restrooms, they were met with a big cork board to post their thoughts and experience of the bathroom. Some post-its were angry and profane, while others celebrated the experience.
Before the Exploratorium brought their thought experiments to the general public, they tested the bathroom signage change with their staff only. Some of the feedback received was that those in higher up positions were uncomfortable being seen in the bathroom by their employees of other genders. Haley Geller, sophomore psychology major, expressed an inverted concern: “I’m all for gender-inclusive restrooms in theory, but I do think, when it comes down to it, I would have a difficult time washing my hands next to one of my older male professors,” she said. “Thinking about it feels uncomfortable.”