The variance to designate the multi-stall bathroom in Baker Hall as gender neutral was passed by the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters on October 25.
Nine students—allies to and members of the LGBTQIA+ community—boarded a bus to Boston at 5:30 a.m. to attend a hearing on the variance the University of Massachusetts submitted on October 12. Members of student organizations such as the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy (CEPA), the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Residence Hall Association (RHA) were also in attendance.
Those who presented to the board included Jackson Luckner, a senior public health and women, gender and sexualities studies major who uses they/them pronouns, as well as an organizer of this campaign, Peter Grey-Mullin, interim director of design and construction management at Facilities and Campus Services and Marty Smith, a project executive of design and construction management at Facilities and Campus Services.
As stated in the hearing agenda, the variance request was to “convert two multi-fixture restrooms from gender designated to gender neutral to accommodate students taking part in the Spectrum living community (LGBTQIA+) as well as students wishing to utilize a gender inclusive housing option.”
Smith proposed to the Board that the bathrooms be titled “restroom” instead of “all-gender.”
“Not everyone identifies with a gender, so using ‘all-gender’ is not inclusive,” Smith said.
Coincidentally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) attended the same hearing to petition for their own bathroom variance. The MIT request was to “convert four multi-fixture restrooms from gender designated to gender neutral as a ‘pilot [program],’” as stated in the hearing agenda.
The Board brought up the issue of whether or not the proposed bathroom violated “potty parity,” a general term referring to a plumbing regulatory law that resulted from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ potty parity law—248 CMR—mandated that, when constructing gender-neutral bathrooms in a building with “two or more toilet fixtures designated by gender,” the building must comply with one of two potential standards.
According to the law, one option is for “Every gender designated toilet fixture [to be] replaced with an equal number of single use gender-neutral toilet rooms (such that there are no gender designated fixtures).”
Alternatively, the law stipulates that “where the code requires four or more toilet fixtures combined for males and females, gender designated fixtures may be replaced by single use Gender-neutral toilet rooms in increments of two such that for every male designated fixture replaced by a Gender-neutral toilet room, a female designated fixture must also be replaced by a Gender-neutral toilet room, and vice-versa…”
However, the board did not find fault with the proposal and believed MIT was setting a precedent rather than following one; the variance was passed.
Luckner was surprised.
“What they approved today was new,” they said. Luckner continued, saying they believe “[the board] never approved anything like this before.”
Like MIT, the board decided to treat UMass’ variance request as a one-year pilot project.
In one year’s time, UMass and MIT will return to the Board to report on the implementation of and reception to the bathrooms. During this one-year period, Luckner says they and other members of the UMass Baker bathroom campaign will be keeping in touch with their MIT counterparts.
About 30 minutes after the variance was approved, a sign was put up to designate the bathroom as a genderless “restroom.”
Smith said he viewed today as “a huge leap since a year ago when we [UMass] got approval…to convert 65 single-use restrooms.”
Dawn Bond, director of Student Services at Residential Life, felt similarly.
“This is momentum,” Bond said.
Bridget Reilly, a junior public health major who uses they/them pronouns and was one of the campaign organizers, was excited by the outcome.
“I’m so happy that all of our hard work over the last few months has paid off, and I’m incredibly proud of and honored to have worked with so many passionate students,” Reilly said. “I’m hoping that this sets a new standard of living for students of all gender identities on campus so all students feel safe and welcome in all aspects of student life.”
However, the gender-neutral designation of the bathroom is not the end of these students’ activism. In an email sent after the hearing, Luckner asked for those who were involved in this campaign to “think about and move towards the next step: broader code change.”
“It was Massachusetts law that prohibited the bathrooms, and it’s Massachusetts law we need to change,” Luckner wrote. “The same dedication, the same insistence, that got us this far will be needed for that as well. We have been assured of University support for code change, and much of the power and possibility lies with us.”
Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg can be reached at [email protected]