UW-River Falls begins to address issue of gender neutral bathrooms

Posted May 4, 2016

While the debate continues around the country over what bathrooms transgender people should be allowed to use, UW-River Falls officials are hoping to renovate bathrooms in two residence halls to make them gender neutral.

Under the plan, the bathrooms of Grimm and McMillan halls would be renovated in 2018, but the plan is still waiting for approval from the state, according to Karla Thoennes, director of Residence Life.

“The design that we have for (the bathrooms) are a couple things: for one, it makes them more gender inclusive, more private, but that benefits all of our students. Who doesn’t want a little more privacy in a bathroom, right?” Thoennes said.

The bathrooms will be designed similarly to those in Jesse H. Ames Suites, with a full door separating the sink area from a private toilet and a private shower.

Currently, students in Ames and South Forks Suites may share private restrooms with those of the opposite sex, but students in other dormitories have less private bathrooms that are segregated by sex.

The UWRF Residence Life Student Handbook states “community bathrooms designated ‘men’ can only be used by males or individuals who have a male gender identity or expression. Community bathrooms designated ‘women’ can only be used by females or individuals who have a female gender identity or expression.”

UWRF doesn’t have any other policies about bathroom use by gender or sex in any other buildings on campus.

Although the bathrooms may benefit all students, transgender students see the need for more gender neutral bathrooms more than others, and not necessarily in the residence halls.

Jess Knapp, also known as JJ, is treasurer of the Gender Sexuality Alliance at UWRF and identifies as gender non-conforming.

Knapp currently lives in Prucha Hall. Although there is a gender neutral bathroom in the basement of the residence hall, it does not have a shower, so Knapp chooses to use the female showers even though they would be more comfortable in a gender-neutral setting.

“At the end of the day when I go home, I don’t want to go and have a fight with my (resident assistant) or housing over what shower I should use,” Knapp said. “I’m just going to take the easy way out and go into the female shower and not deal with it. But I hate that there’s not an answer for me there.”

Emmett Dziuk is a senior at UWRF and said he is in the midst of transitioning from female to male.

Dziuk lives off campus but still struggles to find the right bathroom for himself.

Because there isn’t a policy or a law in Wisconsin prohibiting transgender people from using the restroom of their choice, technically Dziuk can use the male restroom. However, he is very hesitant.

“I’ve only used the men’s restroom here a few times and it’s always when I know it’s safe when I know no one’s in there and I know no one will come in. It’s dangerous and you don’t know how people will react. You have a lot of closed-minded people here,” Dziuk said.

Although a policy has not been put into place, accommodations have been made across campus to be more inclusive.

I’m not aware of any specific campus policy,” Mike Stifter, executive director of Facilities Planning and Management, said in an email, “nor am I aware of a specific Board of Regents policy… That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but we’ve not used that typically in the past to guide our decisions. It was more because it was the right thing to be doing. We used the term ‘family restrooms’ and worked to establish several across campus. We also look to include more as the part of any new construction or major renovation project.”

Fourteen family restrooms are found on the UWRF campus. However, 10 are in residence halls and one is in the maintenance building. Kleinpell Fine Arts, Centennial Science Hall and the University Center all have one.

Knapp and Dziuk said that this is not enough.

“I’m very conscious about using restrooms. It’s always planning when you’re going to go, where you’re going to go. If there is a family bathroom, I use that. Often times I just use the women’s restroom because it’s just easier but that’s defeating for me because I don’t identify as that,” Dziuk said.

Knapp said that students on campus who identify as gender non-conforming “hate that we only have one neutral bathroom in the UC,” because those students don’t know where else they should go.

North Carolina has passed a law banning anti-discrimination protections regarding sexual orientation and prohibiting transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Under the law, they are required to use the bathroom of the gender in which they were born while in government buildings and public schools.

Last year, State Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) proposed a similar law, requiring elementary and high school students in Wisconsin to use the bathroom and locker room of their “actual physical gender.” The law would demand that schools designate bathrooms specifically for those who are transgender.

Currently, UWRF operates under the Board of Regents policy when it comes to co-ed housing.

The policy states, “Coeducational housing in the University of Wisconsin System, as implemented under the conditions of this policy, shall be construed to mean men and women occupying separate living areas by floor or room.”

However, according to Thoennes, the policy leaves room for questions.

“The one thing I think this policy doesn’t take into consideration… the idea that students can both be male and female at the same time,” she said. “It doesn’t say in that situation. We would most likely at this point not assign a transgender student (of the opposite sex) if there isn’t an agreement.”

Thoennes said that it is possible for a transgender student to request a roommate of the opposite biological sex, but that there would need to be an agreement made between the two roommates and Residence Life first.