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An ongoing movement: Cal Poly student organization highlights bathroom inequality

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Soon after Cal Poly’s Queer Student Union (QSU) re-formed in January, it heard numerous complaints from the campus’ sizeable community of trans and gender nonconforming students. These students had few places to use the restroom.

“Anecdotally, students that we worked with were letting us know about their experiences,” said Adam Serafin, coordinator of the Cal Poly Pride Center. “They were saying, ‘I hold it ’til I need to go home.’ Students felt they had to walk across campus. It really raised it as a concern for us.”

Indeed, of the 17 all-gender bathrooms the campus’ Pride Center lists on its website, only a handful appear to be located in accessible areas, with some requiring either faculty permission or the use of a key. In some cases, students have to walk all the way to the stadium to use a bathroom they feel comfortable in.

To bring attention to the issue, the QSU, inspired by an earlier protest at San Diego State, staged a “Shit-In” from April 14 through 16 and asked students to only use gender-neutral bathrooms. The QSU posted a formal petition on Change.org aimed at university administrators. Currently, it has more than 300 supporters.

Part of the petition reads:

“Trans/Gender nonconforming students often cite a lack of all-gender bathrooms as a top concern. Gendered bathrooms pose a threat to the emotional and physical well-being of this demographic and often force awkward and uncomfortable encounters for non-gender identifying students. Cal Poly, a leading university, has already taken steps to improve the amount of all-gender bathrooms here on campus. However, we know Cal Poly can do more.”

On the final day of the “Shit-In,” the QSU held a large demonstration. And, for the most part, it was a success. The large toilet they made for the protest garnered around 1,000 signatures, including that of university President Jeffrey Armstrong. In addition to the online petition signatures, the QSU gathered hundreds more on paper. Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president of student affairs, took notice.

In an email to New Times, he mentioned that since he got to Cal Poly two years ago, he’s “been visited about three to four times by staff and students wanting support for gender-neutral restroom facilities on campus.”

As of early May, Humphrey and the administration offered support for the QSU’s three goals, which include the conversion of existing single-stall bathrooms to all-gender facilities, the guarantee of all-gender bathrooms in new buildings on campus, and the installation of all-gender bathrooms in high traffic areas on campus.

“We also shared with staff and students that we are looking at implementing a policy for all future construction or major remodels that would require gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms in new or significantly remodeled facilities,” Humphrey wrote.

But even with the administration’s support, all-gender bathrooms remain an issue of controversy on campus and beyond. Though transgender people have some of the highest rates of urinary tract infections in the country, lack of accessible bathrooms are far from the demographic’s only concern. Housing, health insurance, public ignorance, and virulent hate continue to be ongoing problems even at Cal Poly, a school where multiple transgender activists have spoken on campus, including Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black.

On his computer, Mick Bruckner, QSU co-founder, keeps a folder of screenshots taken from Facebook and the popular social media app, Yik Yak, that highlight both the confusion and sometimes blatant opposition of the public.

One message, titled “Problem Solved!” reads, “Penis? Men’s bathroom. Vagina? Women’s bathroom. Problem? Go fuck off.”

Bruckner said most people on campus don’t know what a trans person is. “There’s even transphobia within the queer community … mostly apathy.”

These sentiments of apathy and ignorance are not contained to Cal Poly.

Lorelai Monet, a transgender woman who works at GALA SLO, recounted an incident where a transgender woman tried to use a bathroom in Mitchell Park and because she didn’t appear to be female was accosted by police. Aaron Lockwood, a local transgender man, reported a similar instance of physical harassment when a woman hit him with her purse when he used a woman’s restroom six months into his medical transition.

“People will look at you funny,” he said. “People will harass you. Your safety is at stake. … I’ve had bladder infections and ended up uncomfortable, going outside in several situations, too scared to go in either bathroom. It’s a really awful feeling.”

At the moment, there’s no state or county law that requires all-gender bathrooms be placed in either private or public buildings beyond ADA requirements. The QSU

and several parties agree that the issue at least requires a discussion and more

public awareness.

“We launched a conversation on campus,” Bruckner noted. “Trans people face so much discrimination, hatred, and violence in our community. This is about making them feel more comfortable. A more tolerant and peaceful environment will have a positive effect on [all] people.”

 

You can contact Jessica Peña through New Times Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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