Vassar Community Members,
With the recent construction of the Bridge Building and the renovated Lower Level Lounge, structural planning is clearly on the minds of Vassar administrators. The recent construction and renovation on campus is greatly appreciated by many students, but these selective improvements reveal the Strategic Planning Committee’s priorities. Vassar College is well on its way to redefining itself as a competitive and profit-oriented place of higher education. This desire greatly benefits the success of the institution of Vassar College but not the everyday lives of all current students who have made this campus their home for eight months – or for many, twelve months – of the year.
With this in mind, Vassar administrators should be prioritizing the well-being of the students they are serving, and not just the school’s marketability, when developing the College’s campus and policy. The needs of Vassar students who identify as transgender or genderqueer are not being met with these structural developments. Many of Vassar’s trans students feel at risk of verbal, physical, and sexual assault when using restrooms that enforce the gender binary. Even with the Gender Neutral Bathroom Initiative, bathrooms that provide comfort and safety to these students are scarce. And while some of them are very conveniently located, like those in New England Building, others are inaccessible or difficult to access for students with physical disabilities.
The College has made institutional agreements to satisfy the demand for gender neutral bathrooms, as seen with the official Gender Neutral Bathroom Initiative and the VSA General Body Resolution in November of 2015. The Resolution claims that “the College is committed to including at least one gender-neutral restroom in new buildings constructed on campus to the extent feasible.” While it is impressive that the College has committed to including gender neutral bathrooms in newly constructed buildings, their passion for and understanding of this issue is as limited as the number of bathrooms they’ve agreed to. The most recent building constructed, the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, has exactly what the College offered: one gender neutral bathroom “located on the second floor, west side near the circular staircase,” as confirmed by Jeff Horst on December 1, 2015. With this new building being one of largest inside spaces on Vassar’s campus, measuring around 82,000 square feet, just behind Main Building’s 156,572 square footage and Jewett House’s 87,000 square footage, it is unacceptable that those involved in its construction settled for the bare minimum number of gender neutral bathrooms. It is furthermore negligent that the only gender neutral bathroom in all of the Bridge Building is tucked away on the second floor. Many students in Vassar’s transgender community are frustrated and feel unwelcome in this building. The lack of a more concerted effort to construct the Bridge Building as a safer space for transgender and gender non-conforming people is appalling.
The inconsiderate and irresponsible planning of the Bridge Building has demonstrated Vassar College’s desire to pursue diversity and inclusion in an attempt to maintain a hollow reputation. Refusing to exceed the bare minimum number of required gender neutral and inclusive bathrooms is not progressive. It is a capitalist exercise to remain competitive in the industry of liberal higher education. If transgender justice and liberation were a priority for the College, all bathrooms would be free of gender affiliation.
The Vassar Queer Health Initiative (VQHI) is calling for all bathrooms on campus to be labeled “all-gender,” with a subtitle stating: “Anyone can use this restroom, regardless of gender identity and/or expression.” VQHI finds this demand to be reasonable in theory and simple in implementation.
VQHI is predicting administrative and alumni pushback on our demand. Cisgender women, often claim uncomfortability in all-gender bathroom situations. And at Vassar, most often these women are faculty, staff, or outside visitors. VQHI attributes cisgender women’s fear of transwomen in bathrooms to transmisogyny and not actual dangers to their safety. Spokespeople from the Transgender Law Center and the American Civil Liberties union have reported that there is no evidence that transgender women have committed physical violence against cisgender women in single gender public bathrooms (Bianco, 2015). The Williams Institute ran a survey that instead demonstrated the violence that transgender people face while using public restrooms. Conducted in gendered public restrooms in metropolitan Washington D.C., the study examined the experiences of transgender residents in gender separated bathrooms. They found that 59% of the male-to-female participants and 75% of male-to-genderqueer participants were verbally harassed while using a gender dichotomized restroom (Herman, 2013). As of present, Vassar chooses to cater to those who are uncomfortable with all gender restrooms, specifically Vassar College faculty and staff, while disregarding the transgender voices that report violence in gender separated spaces. We must ask: which women and non-men is Vassar College choosing to protect?
Furthermore, the same study by the Williams Institute found a large disparity of violence and discrimination between white and of color populations. 87% of Black/African-American transgender/genderqueer participants alone were verbally harassed and 100% of Hispanic/Latinx participants alone were verbally harassed (Herman, 2013). With Vassar College attempting to “diversify” their enrolling classes by specifically admitting and recruiting more poor and non-white students, it is the College’s responsibility to ensure that the safety of transgender and genderqueer students of color is being prioritized.
While it is important to recognize that Vassar College’s climate differs from that of Washington D.C., where the Williams Institute study was conducted, the study’s conclusions still carry significance at Vassar. Transphobia and transmisogyny exist at Vassar. Anti-black and anti-brown violence happens at Vassar.
In addition to external violence, Vassar students report physical health distress because of all-gender bathroom scarcity. Transgender individuals who are on prescription hormone therapy, including Estradiol, otherwise known as estrogen, and Spironolactone, an anti-androgen complex, experience diuretic side effects, resulting in a frequent need to urinate. Some trans Vassar students on this hormonal regimen abstain from urinating because of a scarcity of safe bathrooms. Students should not be forgoing their own physiological health for a structural inadequacy.
While VQHI is confident that many others in Vassar’s transgender/genderqueer community have experienced health decline as a direct result of unsafe bathrooms, these personal and private stories should not have to be revealed to Vassar College’s voyeuristic pity. Is it not yet apparent how important universally accessible all-gender bathrooms are for trans students’ safety, health, and ability to thrive?
Discriminatory policies of gender dichotomized bathrooms need to end, and they need to end now. This is not an issue that Vassar can strategically push off into the future until there is a critical tipping point in the policies of its peer institutions. Just as Vassar justifies inaction on the basis of the lack of comparable peer college policy, so too do the peers to which Vassar looks. The tipping point for which Vassar is waiting, therefore, might be years or even decades away, as each college refuses to be the first to break new ground and make unique policies for the benefit of its students. While Vassar waits for a universal gender neutral bathroom policy to become common, Vassar’s students face the consequences of the College’s inaction.
Let’s, too, remember that all Vassar students who live in the dorms use “gender-neutral” restrooms to brush their teeth, to urinate and defecate, and to shower and bathe, at all hours of the day and night. All-gender restrooms would not be a new phenomenon to Vassar’s campus.
VQHI is holding the Vassar administration responsible for making the structural changes students need to allow transgender and genderqueer students to prosper. A resolution to make all bathrooms on Vassar College’s campus “all-gender” will be presented to the Vassar Student Association. In the meantime, new all-gender bathroom signs will be hung over old existing signs. This is not vandalization. This is transgender students taking their security and health into their own hands.
The Vassar Queer Health Initiative will not be patient on this issue. All-gender bathrooms are Vassar’s only future.
With hope and power,
Vassar Queer Health Initiative
Bianco, Marcie. “Shocking Report Reveals How Often Trans People Attack You in Bathrooms.” Mic. 2 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.
Herman, Jody L. “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives.” Journal of Public Management & Social Policy (2013): 65-80. Web.