Students Seek More Gender-Neutral Bathrooms On Campus

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

For many, the choice between using a men’s or women’s bathroom is not conscious. However there is a new effort to provide gender-neutral bathrooms for students for whom the choice is not only conscious but also anxiety-provoking.

“There is a population on campus currently uncomfortable with gendered bathrooms,” said Gabe Benjamin ’15, a member of Swarthmore’s Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA). “I don’t think people understand how hard it is for others to be forced on a daily basis to identify with a gender.”

Benjamin said that for students who identify outside of the gender binary, walking into a sex-segregated bathroom involves more than deciding between icons on a door, and confronting such a decision can be psychologically stressful.

Swarthmore currently offers several spaces with private, suite-style, single-use or gender-neutral bathrooms, but now a group of students are working to increase the number of these spaces on campus.

Rebekah Gelpi ‘15, also a member of QSA, is leading these efforts. She and other students approached the Housing Committee and Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head with their concerns.

“We had these same students come to large-group RA meetings and present their ideas, and the representatives also brought this up at the StuCo-appointed Housing Committee,” said Head.

The suggestions were well-received, and Head said that arrangements to offer gender-neutral bathrooms in additional dorms will likely be enacted as soon as next year.

Included in these plans “will be the option for first-year students to select onto a floor that offers gender-neutral bathrooms. This will be something they indicate on their housing questionnaire,” she said.

For returning students, Head said that floors with gender-neutral bathrooms will be marked in advance of the housing lottery so that students can block or select their rooms accordingly.

“The next step,” Head said, “will be to come up with a definition for what ‘gender-neutral’ means, so that when the new student questionnaires go out everyone should have the same understanding of what the options are.”

Gelpi said she was encouraged by the administration’s willingness to engage students on this issue and implement policies that aim to create safe, welcoming spaces for queer students.

“Providing these positive, safe spaces is really important,” Gelpi said. “Safe spaces come in many different shapes. This is just a potentially different paradigm for that space.”

Gelpi also stressed that due to the opt-in versus opt-out nature of selecting a preference, “it is something that only the people who want it or need it will choose. It won’t have any affect outside of this area.”

Head indicated that at least one floor of Mertz, Willets, Dana and Hallowell will likely have gender-neutral bathrooms next fall.


  1. 0
    Palmer Resident says:

    I think providing more gender neutral bathrooms is a great idea, but I would also encourage that ALL bathrooms on campus be checked to ensure that they provide reasonable privacy. I know in Palmer this year I voted to have gendered bathrooms primarily because the “frosted” glass on our shower doors is not very frosted.

    1. 0
      Your Cis Friend ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      I definitely agree with the above and think steps to rectify those issues should be taken anyway, regardless of whether or not the bathrooms are gendered.

    1. 0
      Lorand ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Wow guys, what an astute observation. You are two of the brightest guys I know (as your comments bear out). But after reading this piece, neither of you guys have internalized the journalistic style as well as Taryn.

    2. 0
      Sam ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      I agree David! Taryn has internalized the journalistic style to a high degree and has indeed surpassed what I thought of as my already impassable expectations. What a brilliant piece of journalism! Has anyone told you lately how fantastic you are, Taryn?

  2. 0
    Your Cis Friend ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Why do we segregate by gender in the first place? I’ve heard arguments that it’s a cultural norm (who gives two shits, segregating by race was “a cultural norm” too) and for personal comfort reasons (incredibly heteronormative). I’m confused.

    1. 0
      Joseph Hagedorn says:

      Seriously? A straight male feeling uncomfortable coming out of the shower or using the bathroom around straight females is “heteronormative”?

      Gender neutral bathrooms seems like a perfectly reasonable accommodation to make for students who experience discomfort with gendered bathrooms, but there are equally legitimate reasons to feel uncomfortable with gender neutral bathrooms, and they have nothing to do with homophobia or heteronormativity, and it’s counterproductive to invent that kind of false-flag discrimination.

      1. 0
        2012 says:

        Since when is “discomfort” and “feelings” rational phenomenas? They are not logical events. You often cannot trace their logic. I have as much of a right to be comfortable as everybody else. I shouldn’t have to explain it to you

        1. 0
          Your Cis Friend ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

          You’re right, you are under no obligation to explain it, however, to receive an accommodation for your discomfort, you must provide some sort of logic. For instance, if I stated that white toilet paper made me uncomfortable, I can pretty much assure you that no institution would switch to an entirely different type of toilet paper. I would need to further explain myself. If I stated that white toilet paper caused a severe allergic reaction or something, that would be different.

      2. 0
        different comfort levels says:

        let’s remember to be respectful of the fact that some people have different comfort levels and something that one person would find not to be a problem (like a cis-gendered female sharing a shower space with a cis-gendered male) would be an uncomfortable experience for another. yes, maybe they’re rooted in the heteronormative construction of our society but unlearning gender constructs doesn’t happen in a day. while you or i might think these discomforts are antiquated, it doesn’t make them any less real or valid.

        it’s the responsibility of the college to provide safe and comfortable spaces for ALL students with different concepts of comfortable. i think is great that each dorm will have at least one gender neutral bathroom. it’s a definite step forward in making swarthmore a more inclusive and validating place for all students.

      3. 0
        Confused says:

        I’m confused. You say you would like a “rational explanation” for why a straight male would feel uncomfortable getting out of the shower around straight females…but you also say you can imagine a homosexual male feeling uncomfortable getting out of the shower in front of other males…what is your “rational explanation” for that? I imagine the two scenarios might often have similar explanations, though not always.

        1. 0
          Your Cis Friend ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

          Yes sorry the point I was making was not that the discomfort is rational but that the reasons for gendered bathrooms are built on a heteronormative assumption of discomfort. Also one that’s grounded in a gender/sex binary.

        2. 0
          Joyce Wu says:

          I think Your Cis Friend was trying to argue back against Joseph by saying that the discomfort straight people might feel in gender-neutral bathrooms is comparable to the discomfort queer people might feel in single-gender bathrooms, but that queer people are generally expected to use single-gender bathrooms anyway, which is why gender segregation is heteronormative, as they originally stated. (Whew, that was a lot of clauses.)

        1. 0
          Katie Seville '12 says:

          If you’re attracted to sex organs of the opposite gender I suppose what you say can be true for some people in a gender-neutral bathroom under certain conditions. However, if you’re attracted to sex organs of your same gender, then gendered bathrooms present the same problem. Having a mix of both kinds of bathrooms on campus is a step in the right direction, in my opinion at least.
          Really, I think it depends mostly on the individual. Perhaps there are multiple factors at work: how a person is brought up, how open a person is about their body, how comfortable a person is dealing with nudity, what an individual’s unique sexuality is, and many more factors (or even fewer depending on the person!). That’s just me brainstorming though.
          Personally, I’d like to have my own bathroom! Preferably with a tub, a shower with an actual door, warm water at any time of day, and a bathroom door that is not propped open. However, we live in a campus – and a world – in which we are not alone. I’m sure there are enough bathrooms at this school to make accommodations for everyone (except maybe for me and my dream bathroom).

        2. 0
          Gee Whiz says:

          A vast majority of sexual assault is committed by male-identified people against female-identified people. I’m not about to tell female-identified survivors of sexual assault they are closed-minded for wanting to be able to take a shower without being in the same vicinity of naked men.

    2. 0
      Another Friend says:

      I genuinely want to know why people are voting this comment down. It could have been expressed in a less aggressive way, but its general sentiment is completely reasonable. If anyone has rational justifications for gender segregation, I would love to hear them because I honestly can’t think of any on my own.

  3. 0
    2012 says:

    I am very happy that people will be given the option of living near/with gender neutral bathrooms.

    I do also appreciate that those of us who prefer gendered bathrooms can also get access to them. I know personally that I struggle with my gender and its presentation when I jump out of the shower and am faced with a member of the opposite sex. Just as it must be frustrating to those who feel genderless/in transition/are uncomfortable with a gender binary to always have to face this eternal question when they just need to pee.

  4. 0
    Falling Back in Love with Swat ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Thank you. This is why I came to this school. This is what I thought Swat was. When I got here as a freshman, a hallmate and I tried to convince our hall to make the bathrooms gender-neutral. Despite a few conversations, a poll was ultimately taken and the vote was for gendered bathrooms. I understand now that Swarthmore is full of lots of different types of people all of whom are wonderful in different ways, and I understand the decision that was made my freshman year. But I can’t say that I agree with it. It was one of a series of many events that convinced me that Swarthmore was not the open-minded, welcoming, safe space that I thought it would be but rather just another mainstream college, with a few pockets of activism. I gave up and assimilated. This year I have been impressed with the efforts of others and a little ashamed of my own lack of resolve. With the genderfuck initiative and now this, among other things, I am regaining faith that this campus can be what I came here for. Thank you to those of you who didn’t give up.

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