Published August 26, 2007
BURLINGTON, Vt. – The University of Vermont's big new student center doesn't just have women's bathrooms and men's bathrooms.
It also has gender-neutral bathrooms, a feature added to accommodate transgendered people, as well as those with some disabilities. The four single bathrooms in the new Dudley H. Davis Center — each with a toilet, sink, shower and lockable door — cost about $2,500 a piece to build. Their wall signs identify each as "gender neutral restroom."
"It's about inclusivity and accessibility and the importance of meeting all people's needs, not just a few," said Annie Stevens, assistant vice president for student and campus life.
UVM isn't the only school trying to make its accommodations more accommodating.
At least 17 colleges and universities have included gender-neutral bathrooms in their new construction or in retrofitting residence halls, said Stephanie Gordon, director of educational programs at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
"A multi-use bathroom doesn't necessarily feel safe to transgendered students, because they have concerns about how their gender would be read by others," said Dot Brauer, director of the school's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Ally Services.
A woman who identifies as a man, for example, may not feel welcome in a women's rest room. Transgendered people have been the target of verbal and physical abuse in rest rooms and been arrested, or suspected of lewd conduct, according to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
"There are students whose safety and comfort is comprised," Brauer said.
Kelly, a 19-year-old transgendered UVM student who did want her last name published, said she's been made to feel "very uncomfortable" in rest rooms.
"I think that they're a really important thing to have," she said of the new facilities. "Just because there can be tense situations in gendered bathrooms, especially for trans-identified people, you need a space to use the rest room and feel safe and comfortable."
In 2003, UVM started retrofitting male and female restrooms into unisex bathrooms in classroom and administrative buildings by changing the signs, at $100 each.
Not everyone sees the need.
"I always have concerns when institutions or the government legitimizes behaviors or practices that could be discovered in the future to be harmful to those individuals," said Stephen Cable, founder of Vermont Renewal, a Rutland group dedicated to promoting traditional moral values.
The group also opposes a new law protecting transgendered people in Vermont from discrimination.
UVM has taken other steps to accommodate transgendered students. It allows students to change their first names on their campus identification cards and offers several gender-neutral residential suites.
But Brauer said the school can do more. She wants to see more gender-neutral bathrooms in the library, and private showers in the gym.
"If we can do something, however small, that takes a leap that is going to make life better for members of our community who otherwise would be vulnerable. UVM really shows a willingness to that," said Brauer.