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.
Weaver is an advocate and consultant for LGBTQ issues and feels better blending in with over 30,000 students at UH, which he how attends. 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 HCC facility after class. The smallness of HCC campus life once scared Weaver, but things have changed now that he's a senior at UH.
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-non-conforming students. Some students may not be ready to reveal their sexual orientation or their true identity.
In two weeks, 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 to make its 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 not use the restrooms at all -- all this to avoid the puzzled looks and comments from those who may not understand. The bathroom segregation they are facing has opened the eyes of universities like UHD to do something about this issue.
Photo by Haydee Clotter New stickers that will be on all gender-neutral restrooms.
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 they realized they weren't meeting the needs of transgender students. So they came up with recommendations for the administration, and the idea of gender-neutral restrooms was introduced. This 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. "We are very proud of that, so this is a natural growth."
The first gender-neutral restroom on 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.
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During my visit to UHD, I was able to see the restroom progress. There was one toilet, and flooring was already in place. I thought it was huge and that there would be enough room for someone who is wheelchair-bound to maneuver freely. The countertops and tile will be installed next week and there will also be a baby-changing station. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see the signage because the school is still trying to figure that out.
The facilities will also 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 transgendered 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.