Pop Culture

Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Are Opening Their Doors in Houston and Elsewhere

I don't know about you, but if there is an insanely long line to use the women's restroom -- and there always is -- I will just jump in the men's room to do my business. It never seems like a big deal to me, as long as it is a single stall. But the right to use the bathroom of your choice is making big headlines recently.

In a groundbreaking decision last week, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a transgender female student was allowed to use the girls' bathroom of her elementary school. This is the first time a state's highest-level judicial branch ruled on gender identity and equal opportunities in public spaces. Welcome to 2014.

As the case states, Nicole Maines, now 16 years old, was told to use a communal bathroom by the grandparent of another child while she was attending elementary school as a fourth grader. According to the report, Maines, who was born Wyatt, began identifying herself as a female when she was as young as two. Her parents worked with the school system, who acknowledged Maines as a "she" and were surprisingly accommodating.

The school gave Maines, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria -- a finding that identifies people who see themselves as the opposite gender -- the ability to use the girls' restroom. They also started calling her Nicole.

But the school's progress was stalled when a boy her age started making waves that if Nicole was allowed to use the girls' room, so was he. Apparently, this was at the insistence of his grandfather. So the school freaked out a bit and told Nicole that she had to use the unisex teacher's bathroom.

Last week's ruling stated that equal rights are equal rights, no matter what gender a person identifies with, and Maine's decision could be a model for other states.

Speaking of other states, transgender opportunities recently hit the news right here in our own backyard. Earlier last month, the University of Houston -- Downtown Student Government Association unanimously passed a bill to turn several of the campus's gender-specific bathrooms into gender-neutral and family restrooms. This is a first for a college in Texas.

The SGA Vice President, Kristopher Sharp, who has been instrumental in creating and supporting many of the college's LGBT resources, set the bill in motion. Sharp has mentioned that he has been victim of criticism for his own sexual orientation and felt that this was a way to make UH-D a more inclusive school, something it is already known for.

Many colleges have single-use restrooms, but UH-D does not. Rather than knocking down walls, the proposal states that two restrooms in each building will be designated "gender-neutral" by adjusting signage -- a more cost-effective method, according to Sharp.

Support for the bill was wide, as was apparent from the SGA's vote, but what does this mean for other colleges, other public restrooms, and what about private institutions?

Numerous colleges around the country have already put these rules in place. New Mexico State University, for one, issued a ruling recently urging new and renovated buildings to include gender-neutral johns, and Arizona State University, Ohio State, Wesleyan University, University of North Florida and University of Colorado at Boulder, among many others, are already on board.

What's interesting is that this issue seems to be much more prevalent among colleges than it does for everyone else. Among city-owned buildings, I couldn't find much news pertaining to this issue. In November of last year, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed a piece of legislation that states that all new or renovated city-owned buildings must include gender-neutral restrooms; the city wants to be the most LGBT-friendly city in the country.

Philly may be the first of its kind, but given the attention this issue is getting among college-aged students, it won't be the last. In a world filled with apathy and social-media malaise, it's so nice to see young adults still have some fight left in them.

What do you think? Good idea or not?

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig