Sign of the Times
Harassment. Bullying. Yelling. For many LGBTQ students, high school bathrooms are breeding grounds for conflict.
According to a 2015 national survey by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly two in five LGBTQ students avoid using the bathroom at school due to these issues.
Decatur is trying to reduce that statistic. Last year, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) proposed designating one of the girls’ restrooms as an all-gender restroom.
Physics teacher and GSA sponsor Stephanie Gillain wrote the proposal. She noticed how single-sex restrooms burdened transgender and genderqueer students.
According to Gillain, many students limited their liquid intake or used other tactics to avoid using the restroom.
Junior Sage Payman is one of these students.
Payman felt gender dysphoria, identifying as the opposite of one’s biological sex, during eighth grade but he didn’t come out as transgender or transition to match male physical traits. He had to use the girls’ restroom because he was not out.
Even if he went to an empty girls’ restroom with vacant halls surrounding it, Payman was “still freaking out because it’s not where [he’s] supposed to be.” He stopped using the restroom altogether due to anxiety.
Payman transitioned physically before ninth grade, which included hormones and changes in appearance. Before starting high school, he inquired whether there were any gender-neutral restrooms at Decatur he could use.
“I’ve never felt comfortable enough to use the boys’ restroom because I feel like I could be harassed or bullied for it,” Payman said. “But I’m not a girl, so I don’t feel comfortable using the womens’ restroom either.”
For now, transgender and genderqueer students including Payman can gain access to faculty restrooms with a pass, which is more than the government requires. According to CNN, Trump withdrew the Obama administration’s guidance for schools to treat trans students based on the gender they identify as early this year.
However, Payman believes using faculty restrooms with a pass still has some flaws.
According to Payman, faculty restrooms are so spread out that students can’t conveniently access them between classes. In addition, Payman often has to pull a teacher out of class in order to access the locked restroom. He avoids this inconvenience by refraining from using the restroom all together.
After hearing about these struggles from other students as well, Gillain took action.
Gillian initially wrote a proposal suggesting students be allowed a key or access to unlocked faculty restrooms. According to Gillain, the first proposal was shut down because students would likely lose the keys to the restrooms.
Gillain didn’t stop trying, though. That’s when she came up with the idea of an all-gender restroom.
Her students first introduced the idea of an all-gender restroom to her after an annual GSA summit at Agnes Scott. Agnes Scott has all-gender restrooms, whereas Decatur only has male and female.
“They really liked that the bathrooms were just for human beings,” Gillain said.
Payman attended the summit. He said the climate was very open and accepting because everyone identified somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.
“If you had long hair and makeup and you just walked into the male restroom, nobody would question it,” Payman said.
After the summit, transgender and genderqueer students began to push for an all-gender restroom at Decatur.
“I’m not that passionate about public restrooms, it’s just that I am passionate about trying to create an environment in which any student knows that they’ll be supported,” Gillain said. “Having an all-gender restroom…is part of creating that environment for some of our students,” she said.
Gillain’s sentiments led her to write the current proposal last fall. She then turned to other staff for feedback.
One of those staff members was Assistant Principal Wesley Hatfield. Hatfield was concerned about the feasibility of the proposal due to the many other changes occurring with construction. Despite this, he saw merit in the idea.
“[This is] a good time to have the conversation about how we can make sure that all of our policies are as inclusive as possible,” he said.
Hatfield acknowledges that having students use faculty restrooms can be a challenge for both students and teachers.
“Being able to eliminate that barrier is an opportunity,” Hatfield said.
The rest of the staff gave more mixed feedback. According to Gillain, many were concerned students would take advantage of the restrooms and engage in sexual activity. On the flip side, others believed the restroom would be cleaner because students of different genders would be using it.
Gillain also discussed the proposal with her students. Occasionally she left her browser open during class and students noticed the tab with the proposal on it. Gillain would then explain the proposal to them. Initially, the students weren’t open to the idea, Gillain said. Gillain explained to her students that they wouldn’t have to use the all-gender restroom.
“That’s the idea. It’s open to anybody that does want to go in there, and it doesn’t matter your gender…[or] your sexual orientation…It’s just a restroom.”
Students’ views shifted when she explained the purpose of the proposal.
After tweaking the proposal and getting feedback, Gillain took it to the administration in May. The principal and a couple administrators attended the meeting.
According to Gillain, their reactions were positive. The administration was concerned about implementation, not about the idea. They wanted to know how that space would be monitored and would also want to implement the proposal in the Performing Arts Center (PAC).
Hatfield was not at the meeting but also shares the administration’s concern over the PAC.
“We have an ever-expanding campus, and so…how do you make sure that [students] have the kind of access that is the spirit of the proposal?” Hatfield said.
The proposal was meant to be a pilot program to see if an all-gender restroom would work at Decatur, Gillain said. Then, the administration could expand the idea outside of Decatur.
“[Currently] the project is on hold because ‘we want to implement a policy that could work district-wide, PK-12; not just at the high school,’” Gillain stated.
According to Gillain, the administration plans to leave some faculty restrooms unlocked and post signs stating they are all-gender restrooms for students who need them.
“That’s exciting if that really does happen, and I made a very small change in my little world.”
Payman believes unlocking faculty restrooms is helpful but thinks having a large, all-gender restroom would make daily life even easier for students. He believes the proposal is important because of the amount of kids who aren’t out “or just don’t feel comfortable using the restroom that they have to use.”
Gillain agrees but is still happy that some change may be coming.
“I hope that this will happen and I hope that the incremental change that we’ll have here will help people to see that there is a better solution,” Gillain said.
For now, all eyes will be watching the signs on the restroom doors.
Contact the writer, Nayeli Shad, at email@example.com.
Photos by Nayeli Shad.