Bathroom stalls in Whitmore occupied during first day of Gender Liberation Union actions

By Stuart Foster

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff)

Protesters of the Gender Liberation Union, a student activism group, began an occupation of bathroom stalls in the Whitmore Administration building at the University of Massachusetts on Monday.

Flyers placed on Whitmore bathroom doors and throughout the building listed three demands directed at UMass administration as part of the protests, labelled a “Sh*t-In” on social media and flyers. The first demand was for the “speedy implementation of gender-neutral restrooms campus-wide.”

“It’s essential now because we need it now,” said Ann Schilling, an organizer at GLU and a campus employee in Auxiliary Services. “We’ve been working on this for over a year. It’s as simple as changing the signs on the door.”

Schilling said GLU has been told by the UMass administration that the implementation of campus-wide multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms would take at least five years, well after the graduation dates of most students currently involved with the organization.

Schilling added the GLU’s demands would not be met until the administration of the University committed to the implementation of campus-wide gender-neutral bathrooms by the end of the year.

“We need them to commit to all of the bathrooms. When we say speedy implementation, we need to know it will go into effect while we’re here to see it,” Schilling said.

Justin Kilian, another GLU organizer and a senior women, gender and sexuality studies major, said conversations with the administration about implementing gender-neutral bathrooms had resulted in delays from the University.

Kilian, noting non-protesters in Whitmore had already banged on occupied bathroom stalls and cursed at protesters occupying the stalls, said non-protesters were reacting to something “miniscule compared to being a trans student on campus every day.”

“There’s a lot of students on this campus who do not feel like they can use the facilities as they are currently labelled as male or female without being harassed or assaulted,” Kilian said. “The sheer amount of anxiety that you have to live with going into any of those scenarios is overwhelming.”

Kilian also said some areas, such as those for computer science students, did not have any bathrooms that are not gendered, and students in those majors would have to travel across campus to use bathrooms they feel safe in.

Kilian also described the second demand on the flyers, asking for the “advancement of medically and socially competent in-house transgender health services at [UMass] University Health Services” as “more nuanced” than it appears on the flyer.

“The second falls into a greater demand we have about the Stonewall Center,” Kilian said, referring to an on-campus resource for LGBTQIA community members. “It’s very underfunded and does not have enough employees.”

Schilling described the third demand, which is for the “hiring of a professor by the women and gender studies department who is an expert in the study of critical transmisogyny from an intersectional perspective” as the result of a “terrible history of transmisogyny” within the WGS department.

Schilling also said gender-neutral bathrooms are not a “difficult demand.” While Schilling said the administration had told them plumbing codes were slowing down the process, they said there was no reason why bathrooms with urinals in them could not be gender-neutral. They added that although there is no reason for single-stall bathrooms to not be gender-neutral, it is also necessary for multi-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms to be implemented.

Protesters, who selected either a 9 a.m.-12 p.m., 12 p.m.-2 p.m. or 2 p.m.- 5 p.m. shift, did not occupy stalls which were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and kept at least one stall in each bathroom open for people to use.

Partially through the day, protesters were also pulled out of the bathrooms on the first floor so there wasn’t any inconvenience to university workers in Whitmore.

“We’re trying to focus on administration and not the workers at Whitmore,” said Amanda Fadum Hall, a GLU organizer and senior studying English.

Fadum Hall estimated 150 volunteers had signed up to sit in by the end of Monday.

Unlike last semester’s Whitmore sit-ins organized by the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, which resulted in 34 arrests as protesters refused to leave Whitmore after the building closed, Schilling said demonstrators would leave Whitmore at 5 p.m. each day this week.

John Bergin, a senior journalism major participating in the sit-ins, said they had a lot of friends directly involved with GLU.

“I’ve felt that gender-neutral bathrooms are a necessity for a while,” Bergin said. “It gets harder and harder to validate not having them.”

Robin Zollner, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, said he goes out of his way to find gender-neutral bathrooms on campus if he needs to use one.

“Why should there be a divide on something as arbitrary as what your presented gender is?” he asked. “Being trans, I’ve always had that question and the circumstance I’m in affects which bathroom I use.”

Eden Bekele, an undeclared sophomore, said that as someone living on the Spectrum Floor in the Baker Residential Hall but not within the Spectrum program, she thought it was important to show up as an ally to transgender students.

She said she had not personally encountered opposition from people uninvolved with the action trying to use bathrooms and said she was pleased with the level of organization and direction from GLU.

“I’m just wondering how effective it’ll be if people are just walking in and leaving,” Bekele said. “Hopefully people will complain and that’ll get us somewhere.”

UMass Executive Director of Strategic Communications Ed Blaguszewski said in an email statement that UMass has been at the forefront of statewide efforts to increase the number of gender-inclusive restrooms.

“Currently, there are more than 200 gender-inclusive, single-user restrooms on campus, and during the coming year more than 50 will be added either by construction or by converting single-user ‘men’ or ‘women’ facilities to ‘restrooms,’” Blaguszewski said. “Gender-inclusive restrooms are found in residential, academic and administrative buildings. All new construction and major renovations on campus will include gender-inclusive restrooms.”

Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.