Highlights from Hair Balls
Lou Weaver supports the idea of gender-neutral restrooms on campus. He's a transgender male, and he can recall his unease with using public bathrooms at Houston Community College when he was a student there. One day after class, there was a situation with a student wearing a "Rebel" hat. After that, Weaver thought he could never use that restroom again. If he said something, he could out himself and be in a bad situation, like a friend of his who was attacked in the bathroom at HCC.
Now Weaver is an advocate and consultant for LGBTQ issues and feels better blending in with over 30,000 students at UH. He's also involved in bringing more awareness of the LGBTQ community to the University of Houston by speaking to students.
He was nervous for a long time and decided not to use that particular facility after class. The smallness of HCC campus life once scared Weaver, but things have changed for him now that he's a senior at UHD.
There are students on college campuses who feel they can't use the restroom in peace because of their sexual orientation or because they are transgender or gender-nonconforming students. Some students may not be ready to reveal their sexual orientation or their true identity.
In a matter of days, the University of Houston-Downtown will open its first gender-neutral restroom. UHD is one of the first universities in Houston to take the initiative in making campus life more comfortable for people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender.
In its latest study, from 2011, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force stated that 26 percent of transgender respondents in all educational settings have experienced denial of access to restrooms. Another 35 percent experienced harassment and bullying from students, teachers and staff on higher-education campuses.
Many have been forced to go off-campus or to not use the restrooms at all — to avoid the puzzled looks and comments from those who may not understand. The bathroom segregation such students are facing has opened the eyes of universities like UHD to do something about this issue.
Dr. John Hudson, director of the Center for Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at UHD, said it wasn't until 2012, when UHD President William V. Flores formed the Diversity and Equity Advisory Council, that the school realized it wasn't meeting the needs of transgender students. So it came up with recommendations for the administration, and the idea of gender-neutral restrooms was introduced. The new restrooms would make UHD more inclusive, and the school would meet the needs of other students as well.
"I think this is a natural progression of campus life here at UHD considering how diverse we are, and I hope it can serve as a model for other universities," said Hudson.
The first gender-neutral restroom at UHD is located near the advising center in the main building. The restrooms are not difficult to add, so plans are already set for more restrooms to open in the Commerce and Shea Street building.
The facilities also will be open to parents and their children of the opposite sex, people with disabilities, or those who need attendants. Each restroom will have a sign and a safe-zone sticker indicating it is open to the public regardless of sexual orientation or gender. When there's a colorful "SAFE ZONE" sticker of red, green, yellow and blue, anyone who identifies as LGBTQ will know it's safe for that person to use that restroom, too.
All future buildings at UHD will have gender-neutral restrooms built into them from the beginning, according to Hudson. He believes this can increase enrollment by LGBTQ students, especially transgender students. He says they pay attention to the type of facilities on campus when deciding whether they will feel welcomed and if their needs are being considered.
"Gender-neutral restrooms are important to everybody and should not be seen as a small, segmented thing for a small segment of the population; there's so many people that it would benefit," Weaver said.
West, Texas Explosion: One Year Later, Nothing Has Changed.
In the wake of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, it's probably not surprising to learn that the disaster — which killed 15, injured 200 and gave the little North Texas town the look of a postapocalyptic war zone — could have been avoided. That's what a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report has found.
"The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable," Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso stated in a press release. "It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it."
The CSB is a nonregulatory federal agency charged with only one agency superpower — the right to investigate incidents like the fertilizer plant explosion. Still, CSB investigators had a hard time actually doing that last year. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had a larger team and took control of the explosion site along with the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office. The CSB investigators were kept out of the site for more than a month, but they still managed to investigate. What they found was less than encouraging.
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At the state level, the agency found that Texas has no fire code and thus nothing with which to instruct firemen on what to look for and how industrial companies should be handling dangerous chemicals.
When counties are small enough, Texas rules even prohibit having a fire code, crazy as that sounds.
Worse still, the CSB found that the volunteer firefighters who answered the call didn't know about the ammonium nitrate on the property or how dangerous the stuff was (most of the people who died in the explosion were firefighters). The people living around the fertilizer plant were also unaware of the fact that they were basically living on top of a potential bomb, the report found. The firefighters should have been flooding the area with water and fighting the fire from a safe distance, but they had no way of knowing that, according to the report. And the thing is, standards for handling ammonium nitrate are lax around the country.
"The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, not just in West, Texas," CSB investigator Johnnie Banks stated in the release. "We found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate. Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to AN storage, but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity."