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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Students confront misuse of gender-neutral bathrooms

Students feel unsure about using the gender-neutral bathrooms for various reasons including how they are used and teacher’s monitoring.

There are four gender-neutral bathrooms in the 115 Greenough building. Three have one stall and one has two. The bathrooms are in less prominent locations than the men’s and women’s bathrooms, making it easy for students to get away with misbehaving. These bathrooms frequently end up closed and vandalized. With one gender-neutral bathroom per floor, the seven-minute passing time is often insufficient for students to find an open bathroom to use.

Background on Gender-Neutral Bathrooms:
The 22 Tappan building has one gender-neutral bathroom for each set of gendered bathrooms, while 115 Greenough has four gender-neutral bathrooms, one on each floor and the Unified Arts Building has one gender-neutral bathroom in the basement.

According to social studies teacher and one of the leaders of the Queer Student Program (QSP) Kathryn Leslie, there have not always been gender-neutral bathrooms.

“If you go back at least 15 years ago, there were no gender-inclusive bathrooms, so the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) took on the push to try to establish one gender-inclusive bathroom on each floor, which at the time, felt like a big deal because there were none,” Leslie said.

According to the most recent Panorama survey, 9.7 percent of students at the high school identify as “non-binary, agender, genderfluid or genderqueer,” and 0.9 percent of students at the high school identify as transgender. Many of these students use the gender-neutral bathrooms.

The problem:
According to Leslie, since the number of students who need gender-neutral bathrooms is increasing, one bathroom per floor is no longer sufficient.

“Fifteen years ago, that felt like a win. Now we have more than one-quarter of our student body identifying as LGBTQ. We have [9.7 percent] of students identifying as non-binary or agender. We have a lot of students who deserve to have access to a bathroom that’s not gendered, and we do not have the facilities to provide what students need,” Leslie said.

According to senior Christa Washburn, there are not enough gender-neutral bathrooms for the students who need them.

“We are lacking gender-neutral bathrooms in both buildings, and especially seeing as the bathrooms are often closed, there is a need for more of them,” Washburn said. “If we can’t access the ones that we have, there needs to be an expansion upon the amount that there are.”

In a push led by the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), teachers, including Leslie, attempted to stop the misuse of gender-neutral bathrooms by stationing adults nearby. This included Spanish teacher Alisa Conner who had a duty outside one of the bathrooms.

According to Conner, adults in the school are aware that gender-neutral bathrooms can sometimes be hard for students to access.

“There is a conversation and awareness among staff that [the bathrooms] are not always great places for people who need them. They tend to be places where people feel like vaping,” Conner said. “Last year, I had a duty in the STEM Commons, and it got moved to be outside of one of the gender-neutral bathrooms so that a teacher’s presence could be there to try to discourage that.”

However, Assistant Headmaster Hal Mason said the staff monitoring of the bathrooms comes with an array of issues. According to Mason, the job can be difficult, as bathrooms are private spaces for students.

“It’s not great because you’ve got a private space that’s publicly accessible and difficult for school staff to monitor. It’s true of any bathroom really,” Mason said.

Mason said a continuing issue of faculty monitoring is allotting time to stand in front of a doorway for long periods of time during the school day.

“I just don’t have enough staff to have people sitting outside of the bathroom,” Mason said.

According to Washburn, a different issue with monitoring bathrooms is the possible discomfort students may face regarding their identity.

“Especially for students who aren’t out, if they feel like they are being monitored walking into the bathrooms and getting questioned about their motives in the bathrooms, it can make people feel uncomfortable. That can have a big impact on people’s mental state,” Washburn said.

Washburn said an aggravating part of the problem with gender-neutral bathrooms is that the bathrooms are often closed due to misuse, which prevents the people who need the bathrooms from using them.

According to Associate Dean Alexia Thomas, students often face discomfort because people misuse the bathrooms.

“We’ve heard reports from students that they’re not comfortable using them. They’re not comfortable going to the gender-neutral bathrooms because if they go, they’re going to be filled with people who are vaping and who aren’t there to use the bathrooms. Students reported that they don’t feel comfortable going to the bathroom at all during the day, which is definitely concerning because you’re in a building for almost eight hours, and if you don’t feel comfortable using the bathroom, that’s not okay,” Thomas said.

Washburn said that the misuse of these bathrooms can have a negative impact on students’ attendance. A major concern was the amount of time necessary to find a comfortable, safe bathroom to use.

“If you don’t have access to the spaces that make you feel safe and comfortable to do basic things like use the bathroom, you’re going to try to seek that. If you can’t find the space, it’s definitely going to cause problems like being late to class. The tardiness policy is definitely going to cause a lot of friction and problems that are unnecessary for a basic necessity,” Washburn said.

Many potential solutions have been suggested to make gender-neutral bathrooms more available to the students who need them.

Washburn said that adding more gender-neutral bathrooms would counter the lack of student accessibility.

“I think we are lacking gender-neutral bathrooms in both buildings. Especially seeing as the bathrooms are always closed, there is a need for more of them. If we can’t access the ones that we have, I feel like there needs to be an expansion upon the amount that there are,” Washburn said.

Leslie said that past renovation projects, such as the remodel of the STEM wing in 2021, presented opportunities to add inclusive bathrooms to the school.

“I wish that when the STEM wing was built, there would have been gender-inclusive bathrooms established with each of the pods of bathrooms on each of those floors because that would make our current situation a lot better. But that was not done,” Leslie said.

The gendered bathrooms in the STEM wing are visible and clustered together, unlike the gender-neutral bathrooms that currently exist.

According to Washburn, along with adding new bathrooms, moving away from single-stall bathrooms could accommodate a higher number of students at a time.

“Having multiple stalls allows more people to access bathrooms when they need them,” Washburn said.

According to Mason, who was the building project manager for the construction of the STEM wing and 22 Tappan, constructing new gender-neutral bathrooms, especially multi-stall ones, could take space away from classrooms.

“If you were to make [the gender-neutral bathrooms] two or three stalls, it would take a classroom’s worth of space to add that much square footage,” Mason said.

Conner said widespread multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms might not be comfortable for everyone.

“I’m not sure a bathroom with a lot of stalls, where people of all gender identities went in, would be a safe space for everybody,” Conner said.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) does not set specific guidelines for the number of gender-neutral bathrooms in a school. According to DESE, “All students are entitled to have access to restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities that are sanitary, safe and adequate, so they can comfortably and fully engage in their school program and activities” and “The Department strongly recommends that districts include an appropriate number of gender-neutral restrooms commensurate with the size of the school, and at least one gender-neutral changing facility, into the design of new schools and school renovations.”

Thomas said since the building was just renovated, it is not likely to be renovated again to create new gender-neutral bathrooms, and it is more realistic to think about solutions such as designating less-secluded teacher bathrooms as gender-neutral bathrooms.

Thomas said the best way to intervene may be by having teachers outside the gender-neutral bathrooms again.

“I think if you had staff assigned to kind of sit outside the bathrooms, it would help. I think if we had cameras around the building, it would help with a lot of things. And, of course, you can’t have cameras in the bathrooms, which I would not be in favor of, but I would in the common spaces and in the hallways,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that although there have been attempts to reduce substance use in the gender-neutral bathrooms before, it is time to start trying more creative ways to address this, including making the school’s substance abuse program more known to students to move the problem out of the gender-neutral bathrooms.

“There definitely has to be kind of a more system-wide approach to figuring out one, how are we managing the bathrooms, but more how are we helping students who probably struggle with substance use and struggle with nicotine addiction and struggle with being addicted to vaping,” Thomas said.

Thomas said adding messages inside bathrooms to discourage substance use is a potential solution to the issue of vaping.

“I think it is helpful when you post literature inside the bathrooms about how you get support and how you can get help if you need help with substance use. Obviously, those things sometimes get ripped down, but I still think it’s good because I think you want to get the education out there,” Thomas said.

According to Conner, although there has been progress with being more inclusive towards queer people, there are still many students who don’t feel accepted because of their identities, so the school must have gender-neutral bathrooms and insist on making them a safe space for genderqueer people.

According to Mason, gender-neutral bathrooms are used without issue the majority of the time.

“I don’t agree with the premise that the [gender-neutral bathrooms] are never used correctly. I think most of the time, people can go in there and do what they need to do and feel safe and feel secure. But nobody remembers that. Nobody remembers the 10 times that they used the bathrooms, and it was fine. They remember the one time they went in there, and there were six kids in there vaping, and they felt uncomfortable, or they tried to go in there, and someone said, ‘Get out of here, you don’t belong in here, we’re using this room,’ ” Mason said.

Washburn said that bathrooms are meant to be safe spaces for students and that it is necessary to work towards changing them for the better.

“I wish [gender-neutral bathrooms] would be taken more seriously,” Washburn said. “Bathrooms can be their own safe space where people are able to do their business, feel safe and not have to worry about other people viewing them badly.”

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