Students Declare Victory in Fight for Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

Santee activists believe theirs is the first high school with a multi-stall facility open to everyone.
(Photo: Courtesy Jose Lara)
Apr 17, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Over the past few months, students at Santee Education Complex, a high school in Los Angeles, have plastered their school walls with pictures of toilets. They created posters covered with rainbows and smiling poop emojis, taped up dozens of purple fliers, and painted a gigantic sign proclaiming “It’s just a toilet.”

The posters are part of a campaign by the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance called “Don’t freak out! It’s just a toilet.” Some 30 students pushed the administration to convert a girls’ restroom into one open to all students regardless of gender. After collecting 700 petition signatures and presenting their case to school administrators and the student council, the students were successful.

“It was a hell of a ride. It was amazing,” Johnny Ramos, a Santee senior and GSA member, told TakePart of the student-led campaign.

On Thursday, the South Los Angeles school replaced a girls’ room sign with one reading “All-Gender Restroom.” The multi-stall, gender-neutral bathroom is the first of its kind in the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose population of 640,000 students is greater than those of two states and is a rare find across the nation.

“[The students] were all supportive,” Juliet Dominguez, a fellow Santee senior and GSA member added. “Students were just asking like, ‘What are gender-neutral bathrooms?’ And we would inform them about what it was and why it was important to have them.”

In 2005, LAUSD established a policy allowing students to use restrooms that match their gender identities. In 2013, California enacted a similar policy. But for some students, the choice between the boys’ room or girls’ room still isn’t an easy one.

Some students at Santee felt uncomfortable in gendered restrooms and wrestled with which one to choose during one of Santee’s GSA meetings.

“Some of the students talked about how they are gender fluid. Some of the students talked about how they feel like they’re getting strange stares when they walk into certain restrooms,” Jose Lara, the faculty adviser for the GSA, told TakePart. “Students said they wanted to take this campaign on as a way to make our school an even safer place.”

LAUSD guidelines also allow gender-nonconforming students to use private single-stall bathrooms, but Dominguez explained that trans students and gender-nonconforming students just want to feel like everyone else.

“All the single-stall restrooms were excluded, and we didn’t want to be excluded,” Dominguez said, adding that single stalls are also impractical for a school of 2,000 students. “If people were using a [single-stall bathroom], there would be a line,” she added. The all-gender bathroom has 15 stalls.

Santee’s inclusive bathroom policy comes as the trans community faces a spate of restrictive bathroom bills across half a dozen states. Last month, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation that requires schools to segregate restrooms based on gender and forces transgender people to use restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate. Similar legislation is under consideration in Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

These bills conflict with federal law. Last year, the Department of Justice affirmed that transgender students are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which prohibit sex-based discrimination) and that forcing students to use a separate bathroom or one that does not match their gender identity violates their rights. Bathroom accessibility is also a matter of health and safety. Many trans and gender-nonconforming students report refusing to use gendered bathrooms for an entire day, which can lead to chronic constipation and urinary tract infections.

“I’m so happy to be able to live in California,” Ramos said. “Our state is very accepting.” Most students and community members commended the group for its forward thinking. Lara admitted that some school administrators did have some reservations about the safety of an all-gender bathroom.

Myths that a male student will pretend to be a trans girl to prey on female students—a tactic often employed by conservative lawmakers—have been thoroughly debunked, but Santee officials will monitor the all-gender restroom to ensure that no bullying or sexual harassment occurs.

Lara and the students are confident that the all-gender restroom will prove successful and could inspire other schools to follow suit.

“I hope it’s like a domino effect so everybody can feel safe in every school, not just in our school,” Dominguez said. “Students are important, and they should feel safe.”