I got my start in gender-identity activism when someone asked me if I wanted to help her scout around Columbia and Barnard for bathrooms. “Excuse me?” I nearly asked. I learned that she and some other friends were trying to map all the restrooms on campus, looking in particular for gender-neutral facilities, elusive as they are. My confusion faded into concern when I learned that Lerner, Butler, and Hamilton—the trifecta of Columbia buildings where, as a first-year, I practically lived—all lacked even a single gender-neutral restroom, despite multiple floors, labyrinthine structures, and supposedly competent architects. And then my concern became personal: If I wore a dress and heels to class one day, what would I do? Using a men’s or women’s restroom—which would be less of a risk? Neither seemed safe.
So we mapped. We mapped for students, faculty, and staff. We mapped for ourselves and anyone else who needs to use a gender-neutral restroom on a regular basis. We mapped the campus, nearly in its entirety. Our efforts are now publicly accessible.
Some might applaud us for the effort but object to our use of it, thinking that there are surely fancier and more interesting ways to spend our time and your student life fees than focusing on basic bodily functions. A quick mental jaunt in someone else’s stilettos might help. Trans* people (the star is a fill-in-the-blank) in New York and around the country routinely face harassment, threats, and demands to produce IDs in order to prove that they “really” are the gender that they present—just for using a restroom. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a community organization providing legal services to low-income trans* and queer people of color, reports that trans* people can suffer a host of medical conditions, including cystitis, bladder and kidney infections, and kidney stones, in addition to the stress, anxiety, and emotional harm from the harassment, actual or potential, associated with what should be such a simple and stress-free act.
We shouldn’t think that Columbia is immune to this kind of behavior and the problems associated with it. The fact that buildings built as recently as Lerner, the Diana Center, and the Northwest Corner Building have not one gender-neutral restroom among them shows both the pervasiveness of the assumption that all people at Columbia will be comfortable with using a sex-segregated facility—and blatant ignorance of the concerns of students who aren’t.
The public release of the map coincided with the end of Women’s History Month at Columbia, which brings me to my second point. Several efforts, most recently in Maryland, to enshrine trans* rights in law have stumbled across one and the same obstacle: conservative groups like Focus on the Family have attacked these bills for insufficiently protecting the safety of women by allowing “men” to use women’s restrooms. Never mind that this argument brutally erases the identity of trans* people and particularly transsexual women—the argument is based on a concern for women’s safety in the very facilities that are the site of so many violations of safety for trans* people, including trans* women. As feminists, as gender-identity activists, and—hopefully—as both, the extent to which groups like Focus on the Family can drive a wedge between two historically marginalized communities by emphasizing the safety of one at the expense of the safety of another should startle us.
As we reflect on varieties of feminism and the movements associated with it, we should also take the time to notice where those movements can become more inclusive and ally themselves with other movements of similar concerns. A restrictive and normative feminism will define the category and concerns of women so as to exclude trans* people from consideration within it. An inclusive feminism, by contrast, will celebrate the safety of trans* people as intimately connected with the safety of women. Within a Columbia context, the Gender-Neutral Restroom map should be seen as a step forward for all people, women and trans* persons included, whose safety has ever been threatened in what should be a private and personal space.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in classics and philosophy, and is the co-chair of GendeRevolution.