Swarthmore is Far from Neutral on Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

You are a prospective Swarthmore student. You walk up McGill walk, and you admire the green expanse of Parrish Beach. You walk through the doors of Parrish, and you are excited. You are finally visiting your dream school. You see an admissions officer, and he smiles at you.  

“How are you? How are you liking Swarthmore? Can I get you anything?” he asks.

“Hi! I’m great. Sorry, I’ve had a long trip to get here. Would you be able to point me towards your nearest gender-neutral bathroom?” you ask.  

His face drops. He looks at you with concern. “Yes, but it’s in the basement. We’re going to have to take a hike. Is that OK?”  

Students who need gender-neutral bathrooms run into this problem all the time on this campus. It is seemingly impossible to find gender-neutral bathrooms in countless non-residential buildings here at Swarthmore. Kohlberg, for example, only has two gender-neutral bathrooms on the ground floor. If you have an event in the Scheuer Room, the nearest gender-neutral bathroom is on the other side of the building, and it can only be reached by physically leaving the building and entering the adjacent wing of Kohlberg. And here’s the catch: almost all bathrooms on this campus that have been listed as gender-neutral are single-occupancy restrooms.  

What are the implications of making nearly all of the gender-neutral bathrooms on this campus single-occupancy? This physical isolation fails to promote equality and more importantly, by relegating students that require gender-neutral bathrooms into single occupancy restrooms, is Swarthmore saying that to require a gender-neutral space is to be “other”? That students who require these spaces do not deserve something similar to a traditional gendered bathroom?  

Here’s the thing: we have visited almost every bathroom on this campus located in a non-academic building. Out of the nineteen buildings we visited, on the 43 floors with bathrooms we visited, out of about 70 bathrooms we had the chance to see, only four bathrooms on this campus are gender-neutral stalled bathrooms. The list includes: one on Beardsley 3rd, one on McCabe 2nd, and the last two are in the New IC.  

As we walked around campus cataloging every bathroom in the academic buildings on campus, it also became apparent that some of the gender-neutral bathrooms are completely inaccessible for people with disabilities. For example, on the 2nd floor of Sci, we scouted out one gender-neutral bathroom, but despite being single-occupancy, there was no sign that it was an accessible bathroom. If you are a student working on the 3rd floor of Sci who requires an accessible gender-neutral bathroom, you must take a trip down to the basement. Furthermore, we encountered three single-occupancy bathrooms that were designated as either men’s or women’s restrooms, despite being listed as gender-neutral on Swarthmore’s website.

On this campus, gender-neutral bathrooms are located in completely inconvenient places. Students who are trans, nonbinary, or gender-non-conforming are forced to repeatedly misgender themselves or subject themselves to the judgement of others just to go to the bathroom. In a way, the choice of what bathroom they use is already made for them, and yet there is no general discussion about this problem on campus.

This is not a new issue on Swarthmore campus. In 2016, “The Daily Gazette” published an article that interviewed several students who saw the lack of gender-neutral restrooms as a critical issue. What has changed since then? Pretty much nothing. Everything that these students pointed out in 2016 surrounding restrooms still exists.

By contrast, over the summer, Haverford began to change the designations of their school bathrooms, and converted former men’s and women’s restrooms into multi-user gender-neutral bathrooms. Furthermore, these are only the first steps for Haverford’s gender-neutral bathroom initiative, as President Kim Benston outlined in a school-wide email sent last year: “We are currently exploring the logistics of increasing or adding all-gender bathrooms in other academic and administrative buildings, working with architects and building planners to design and construct new, single person all-gender bathrooms where conversions of existing bathrooms are not viable.” At Bryn Mawr, the bathrooms were intentionally built as gender-neutral. Why is Swarthmore College so far behind the rest of Tri-Co?

Students would not be opposed to these changes. Through the “2018‐2019 Residential Community Bathrooms” list posted on the Swarthmore website, we discovered that around 40 percent of bathrooms on residential floors have gender-neutral bathrooms. A large number of students are consistently exposed and consistently use of non-gendered bathrooms in resident halls, so why would this experience not translate to bathrooms outside of residential buildings?  

So what do we do to start this process and alleviate this issue? Consider this: Sci Center has two gendered bathrooms extremely close to each other on the first floor. What is stopping us from simply changing the sign outside of the door? What is keeping us from simply removing a dressed or undressed iconography from the outside and simply pasting up a toilet?

We are calling this campus to change the harmful precedents that have been set by the administration. We have identified a problem. This institution often prides itself in inclusion and diversity and these values do not seem to stretch to our bathrooms on campus.  For some, the simple luxury of a bathroom has become a long journey. This summer, we will see the new B.E.P. building reach its first stage of completion and in a few years, Sharples will be renovated. We do not want to wonder how many gender-neutral bathrooms these projects will deliver. We want to see change.


  1. That 40% of bathrooms on residential floors are gender neutral and used by their residents does not mean that “students would not be opposed to these changes”, nor that they support gender neutral bathrooms in residential buildings. When criticism of this project is labeled bigotry, debate is stifled. The theory of gender and sex underlying these efforts is represented as axiomatic, when in reality it is highly contested. I am against the transition of gendered bathrooms to gender neutral bathrooms, and I only grow more aware by the day of those who agree with me.

  2. I think you have a typo here: “Here’s the thing: we have visited almost every bathroom on this campus located in a non-academic building.” Don’t you mean “academic” not “non-academic”?

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