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Gender-inclusive restrooms should take precedence over the state plumbing code

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian)

After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sent a mass email to students and faculty, assuring recipients that “hate has no home at UMass.” He continued to write, “With the fall semester soon approaching, I want to reaffirm UMass Amherst’s commitment to ensuring a safe and welcoming living-learning environment for every member of our campus community…I am confident that no matter what we are confronted with we will remain true to our values of social justice, equity, and inclusion.”

But less than one week after hearing their chancellor declare UMass a “welcoming living-learning environment” that holds high the values of “equity” and “inclusion,” students living on the Spectrum Floor, the LGBTQ+ designated residential community in the Baker Residential Hall, discovered that the multi-stall gender-inclusive bathroom in their hall had been changed to one that is now solely for women.

That is not to say that only individuals who were assigned female at birth can use that restroom. On September 1, 2016, the office of the Massachusetts Attorney General released a document entitled “Gender Identity Guidance for Public Accommodations.” This document explains Massachusetts law regarding the discrimination and harassment that people face because of their gender identity, specifically focusing on the use of public restrooms. The law “protects the right of all people – including transgender people – to use sex-segregated facilities that are most consistent with their sincerely held gender identity.” In other words, according to this law, students may use the newly labelled women’s restroom in Baker Hall as long as they identify as women.

But what if your gender identity isn’t consistent with the male-female binary that is present in most public restrooms, and is now present in Baker Hall? What if your “sincerely held gender identity” is not male or female, but somewhere in between, or somewhere not on this spectrum at all? Well, that’s where gender-neutral bathrooms come in.

UMass has made great strides to accommodate those who choose to use gender-inclusive bathrooms, with 137 non-gendered bathrooms located in academic and service buildings on campus, in addition to gender-neutral bathrooms located in six first-year residential halls, one sophomore hall and five multi-year halls.

But that simply isn’t enough.

Imagine if you were a gender-nonconforming student, and you had a class in Lederle Graduate Research Center. In that 16-story building, there is not one gender-neutral restroom. That same student may have a class in Morrill Science Center, but out of those four buildings there are only two gender-neutral restrooms, and that pattern continues when one analyzes the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Over 100 inclusive bathrooms may sound like a lot, but on a campus this large, that is barely scratching the surface.

It’s also worth noting that all gender-neutral bathrooms now on campus are single-stall, and most are handicapped bathrooms, all of which are gender-neutral by design. The multi-stall gender-inclusive restroom in Baker Hall was an important progressive display. Its’ reassigning is a very upsetting step back.

For people who are gender-nonconforming, many are left with the uncomfortable decision between refraining from using public restrooms at all or choosing to use one that they may feel uncomfortable in.

But even more than discomfort, gender-nonconforming individuals face violence and harassment when using public facilities that are segregated by gender.

In 2013, researchers analyzed the experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in public restrooms and found that 68 percent reported experiencing at least one instance of verbal harassment, and nine percent reported experiencing at least one instance of physical assault.

So why was the gender-neutral bathroom in Baker Hall reassigned? Because of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Plumbing Code.

According to this code, dormitory “toilet facilities, shower rooms and bathing rooms for males and females shall be separate and so designated.” By law, that one line of text is enough to prevent the university from building non-handicapped, gender-neutral restrooms in dormitories.

Now, I’m no expert on the politics of plumbing, but I find this explanation to be woefully unsatisfying. Is the Massachusetts Plumbing Code so final that a massive organization such as the flagship campus of Massachusetts can’t take a stand against its’ contents? Are the laws and regulations surrounding Massachusetts plumbing so set in stone that they must be abided by, without even the suggestion of an amendment?

The UMass administration was right to reaffirm their commitment to ensuring an environment that is safe and welcoming for all students and faculty, but now they must act on their commitment. Values of social justice, equity and inclusion are commendable, but the administration cannot forget that “inclusion” truly means the inclusion of all students.

UMass is more than a learning environment – it is a home. The administration needs to take a stand against antiquated policies that make students feel alienated and uncomfortable in their own living communities. Otherwise, their statement of inclusion is just empty words.

Tess Halpern is the Opinion/Editorial editor and can be reached at tjhalpern@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “Gender-inclusive restrooms should take precedence over the state plumbing code”
  1. Ed Cutting, Ed.D. says:

    First, I read that sentence differently, with the “if” included.

    Second, plumbing code applies to new construction and I believe Baker is grandfathered anyway — it was the shoddy construction of umass buildings in the 1960’s that led to statewide codes that hadn’t existed before then.

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