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Lehigh University Introduces 70-Plus Gender-Inclusive Bathrooms

Gender inclusive restroom

The Advocate goes inside one university's bold new trans-friendly gender-inclusive bathroom policy.


Considered one of the United States's 24 "hidden Ivies," Lehigh University now has another accolade to add to its Pulitzer-prize winning faculty, flourishing NCAA basketball team, and bucolic campus in Bethlehem, Pa: Lehigh is one of a wave of select major colleges and universities to implement a robust gender-neutral bathroom policy for its transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

Chelsea Fullerton, the director of Lehigh's Pride Center for Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity tells The Advocate that, unlike Northwestern University, which last year announced that it would be creating just two gender-neutral bathrooms on the third floor of its Norris University Center building, Lehigh has designated 70-plus gender-inclusive bathrooms in almost every academic building on campus, making the school's trans-inclusive policy one of the most ambitious and comprehensive among its peer institutions. (The terms "gender-neutral" and "gender-inclusive" are used interchangeably by Lehigh and Fullerton to refer to accomodations that welcome all people regardless of gender identity and expression.)

Like Philadelphia's steps in September toward designating its single-occupancy public restrooms as gender-neutral, Lehigh's policy comes as good news for advocates still reeling from recent setbacks in bathroom access for gender-variant Americans. To the outrage of many trans Texans, the proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have protected LGBT people and 13 other minority classes from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations, was annulled November 3 after opponents launched a scare campaign that erroneously labeled transgender people seeking gender-affirming public bathroom access as sexual predators. In September, a federal judge denied a trans male student at Gloucester County High School in Virginia the right to use male restrooms. So important have gender-neutral bathrooms become to some advocates' justice efforts at colleges and universities that when roughly 300 predominantly black students at the University of South Carolina staged a protest walkout in November, and issued 12 demands to school officials to make the university more friendly for underrepresented students, one of the demands was for gender-neutral bathrooms.

"We thought that gender-inclusive bathrooms were an important piece of our [diversity] work here," Fullerton emphasizes. "A student who worked for the Pride Center two years ago wrote up a proposal that included facts and stats about trans folks and came up with a rationale for why this is important."

While making it possible for binary trans individuals who identify as women or men to use bathrooms specified for their gender is crucial, advocates also maintain that gender-neutral bathrooms play an especially important part in making transitioning, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and genderqueer individuals safe as they relieve themselves, especially college youth whose gender identities and expressions may be evolving.

"Folks who were in the administration of the Pride Center at the time as well as folks in student affairs, administration, and facilities met together and made a plan," Fullerton says, "and we audited the single-occupancy restrooms on campus, all of which at the time were gendered. Then we made a spreadsheet that had all of the restrooms and we marked what needed to be done to make gender-inclusive spaces. Almost all of the single-use restrooms have been converted into gender-neutral spaces."

Fullerton explains that among the ingredients needed to create viable gender-inclusive spaces was a "passive educational campaign" that included signs on the doors of the bathrooms that clearly mark them as "gender-inclusive" spaces with additional language that states that the restrooms are "open to anyone regardless of gender identity or expression."

Along with the passive educational campaign came an active one to get the word out about the new initiative, including bulletin board postings, newsletter articles, and signs inside bathrooms that explain the welcoming intent behind the newly designated accommodations.

To the question of whether anyone on campus or the greater Lehigh community dislikes the changes, Fullerton, who mentions that she herself identifies as a queer bisexual cisgender (nontrans) woman, responds that no objections have yet been raised since the changes were implemented last spring. If objections arise, Fullerton says, "I think I would say that I would want to hear what people's experiences are and why there may be confusion, misunderstanding or discomfort, and then I would explain the rationale for why we needed to do this because ultimately we want to prioritize the safety of everyone so that they feel safe and comfortable to do something as simple as using the bathroom and we felt that creating gender-inclusive restrooms helps us to do that."

"Right now there are some gender-inclusive restrooms in common spaces in residence halls," Fullerton adds, "The multistalled restroom spaces also have [private] showers." But Fullerton says that outside of the common spaces, the university does not have plans for gender-inclusive restroom spaces on residence hall floors. Instead, Fullerton points out, like approximately 200 schools in higher education, Lehigh now has a gender-neutral housing option.

"Over the past year we worked to create gender-inclusive housing spaces. We did have co-ed housing options, but those options weren't specifically marketed to the LGBTQ community. So we created what we call the Pride Community, and this is our inaugural class of students who are living in that community, and it is a truly gender-inclusive community and all the restrooms there are gender-inclusive. The community is one option for transgender students, and they are welcome to explore other options as well. There's no 'one size fits all' model here at Lehigh and not all trans students want the same thing."

Fullerton also acknowledges the ways that Lehigh's new policy for gender-inclusive restrooms expands on the legal protections in its nondiscrimination policy, which clearly list gender identity and expression, and its "Principles of Our Equitable Community," and she stresses that, like other schools, the changes dovetail with other diversity strides like the Pride Center's ongoing communications with the school's Greek community, and its trainings, peer education, and collaborations with Multicultural Affairs.

Originally, in order to protect the privacy of a current students in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the name of the student who spearheaded Lehigh's new gender-inclusive bathroom policy was not released. Now, however, Elizabeth Pines, Lehigh class of 2016, has come forward with express permission to be publicly identified as the student who led the effort. Pines tells The Advocate:

"As a cisgender queer woman and a fierce trans ally, I have come to see some of the atrocities that trans people face every day, from using public facilities, to finding accommodations, to bullying and harassment. I saw some of that going on at Lehigh and I knew that I had the power and privilege to stop it. A lot of people ask me why these bathrooms are so important, when there are only two or three out trans students every year. My response is two-fold: first, if we can make our community more inclusive to a very disenfranchised group, then we should. It's the right thing to do, and it's a necessary step to becoming a more inclusive campus. Second, Lehigh isn't seen as being the most LGBTQ-friendly campus in the United States. If we can begin to change our culture, starting with our public facilities, and then moving toward education and acceptance, then we might be able to draw in more trans students who want to be out at Lehigh."

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Cleis Abeni

Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.
Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.