The Signs they Should be Changing: Bringing All-gender Bathrooms to the Graduate Center

Bringing all-gender bathrooms to the Graduate Center has been a long process. It began with a promise from the GC’s president in 2012 and last semester resulted in the unveiling of an all-gender bathroom on the seventh floor.

But more can be done immediately, and at almost no cost, to make the building more accessible to gender non-conforming individuals.

In spite of the electronic signage announcing the Graduate Center’s all-gender bathroom, it is
remarkably hard to find.

The Office of Facilities and Campus Planning has even published a map to the Graduate Center’s website.
After exiting the elevators, you turn toward the computer bank, hang a right, and then a left down the south corridor to a room next to the freight elevator. For easy reference, the website tells you it is “next to Room 7408 and Staircase C,” which is of particular use to anyone who has never managed to get lost in the building.

Tucked into the very back corner of the Graduate Center, it is easy to imagine the single-occupancy bathroom, nice by public restroom standards, though not designed to be accessible, is an after-thought.

Of course, the bathroom is a very real achievement for the Graduate Center. Unveiled in September 2015, it fulfills half the promise then President Bill Kelly made to the Graduate Center community in 2012. The other half of the promise is still in the works: an accessible all-gender bathroom on the first floor which could be used by CUNY students and visitors without a CUNY ID. The president’s promise was in response to a resolution passed by the Doctoral Students’ Council asking CUNY to bring itself into compliance with its non-discriminatory policy and provide accessible gender-neutral bathrooms at all campuses.

At the DSC plenary meeting on 19 February 2016, Chloë Edmonson, a PhD candidate in the Theatre program and chair of the DSC’s ad hoc Committee on Gender-Neutral Bathrooms, queried President Chase Robinson about the status of the accessible first-floor all-gender restroom. Robinson deferred the question to Vice President of Student Affairs Matthew Schoengood, who said the process was prolonged because of the rules governing approval of architectural changes and the bidding process required by CUNY.

Shortly after this exchange, Janet Werther, a DSC at-large representative and student in the Theatre program, pushed Robinson further by asking if the matter could be solved by something as simple as replacing the signs. Robinson said he assumed state or city laws probably mandate a specific number of gendered bathrooms in public buildings. Neither Robinson nor Schoengood offered a timeline for the construction of the new bathroom.
This lack of transparency, like the hard-to-find all-gender bathroom, gives the impression that the issue is not a high priority for Graduate Center administrators.

In stark contrast to the pace of its all-gender bathroom projects is the Graduate Center’s early adoption of policies aimed at preventing gender discrimination. Examples include the preferred name policy, introduced by Provost Louise Lennihan in December 2014. The policy allows students to identify a name to display on computer information systems, course rosters, college IDs, and email addresses. In January 2015, Lennihan built on the policy and directed the Graduate Center to cease using gendered language in official correspondence. The school became the first college in the nation to institute a gender-inclusive language policy, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Robinson is correct in his assumption. Codes govern the number of gender-specific bathrooms required in public buildings. New York State building codes require a specific number of male/female gender-segregated bathrooms with gender-specific signage but New York City has the authority to administer and enforce its own building and fire codes. Reports by several city agencies have drawn attention to the persistence of the city’s gender-segregated bathroom rules in spite of a thirteen-year-old bill signed by Mayor Bloomberg requiring the removal of all gender-biased language in city laws, documents and materials.

According to the current NYC building code, educational facilities such as the Graduate Center are required to have one toilet or urinal for both males and females for every fifty occupants. Other venues, such as bars for example, with occupancies fewer than 150 people are required to have only two gender segregated or two all-gender restrooms which is why city bars are often presented as leading the charge against urinary segregation.

Several city agencies have also recently found ways to modify the enforcement of city building codes which are gender discriminatory. In December 2015, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released legal enforcement guidelines which interpret the 2002 New York City Human Rights Law to protect gender non-conforming individuals and those in the process of transition. The guidelines state that entities such as landlords, city agencies and employers “may accommodate an individual’s request to use a single-occupancy restroom because of their gender” and that “entities that have single-occupancy restrooms should make clear that they can be used by people of all genders.”

On 7 March 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order ensuring that gender non-conforming individuals can use single-sex public restrooms and other facilities in city government buildings and areas consistent with their gender identity. The executive order also requries city agencies to post laws protecting gender-identity near bathrooms and training so city employees correctly enforce those laws.

In other words, the process through which the Graduate Center worked to construct a single-occupancy bathroom to accommodate all genders was so slow that by the time students could use the new bathroom, the city’s laws had caught up.

Yet, Graduate Center administrators should not be given short-shrift. There is not yet a legal requirement to change existing bathrooms or add additional restrooms and CUNY is not under the jurisdiction of de Blasio’s executive order. The Graduate Center has taken positive action to be more accommodating to gender non-conforming individuals with the construction of the seventh floor all-gender restroom and the $1 million dollar planned upgrade to the first floor restrooms which would create two additional all-gender bathrooms. It may not have gone far enough to meet its own anti-discrimination commitments, though.

There is nothing in the commission’s statement requiring existing restrooms to remain gender-specific and there is nothing in the building codes to prevent the Graduate Center from re-designating a portion of its bathrooms all-gender.

The Graduate Center could emulate Etsy, which since December 2015 has all-gender bathrooms at its New York City office. It achieved this by adding a sign to restroom doors. A Twitter post by an Etsy engineer shows the sign, added below the traditional gender-binary signs, reading “While the law requires gender binary signs on the doors, we believe that gender is no binary. Please use the restroom that feels most comfortable for you.”

In an email to the Advocate, Etsy’s Vice President of People, Workplace and Sustainability, Brian Christman, stated “At Etsy, we continually examine our internal culture and practices, with a focus on fostering an inclusive, comfortable environment for everyone. With this in mind, we’ve updated restrooms at our DUMBO headquarters to increase privacy and make them more accessible to all people, including transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. We believe that gender is not binary and that individuals should use the restroom that feels most comfortable for them.”

For some Graduate Center students, Etsy’s solution, with an explicit statement that gender is not binary, is better than the schools plan to simply construct additional bathrooms.

The Graduate Center has already become a leader against gender discrimination thanks to its progressive interpretations of current laws. Lennihan’s policy changes were justified by an expansive and novel interpretation of Title IX.

The school is also the only CUNY school with a preferred name policy and the policy has even delayed the implementation of CUNY First at the Graduate Center because preferred names are not yet compatible with the system. Lennihan’s policies preceded the Human Rights Commission’s legal guidance on gender discrimination but closely match the requirements laid out in the document.

On 1 December 2015, before questioning Robinson at the recent plenary meeting, the Committee on Gender Neutral Bathrooms wrote a letter to Lennihan, Schoengood, then Director of Facilities Michael Byers, and the Graduate Council Student Services Committee requesting a construction timeline for the first-floor bathrooms. Until the Advocate contacted Facilities for comment on 29 February 2015, only Lennihan had responded to the committee’s letter, but she could not provide a timeline. Since the Advocate’s email to Facilities, the committee received an email from Schoengood stating that the bathroom was still in the design phase and that there was no start date for construction.

The committee’s letter also stressed that the promised all-gender bathrooms are a step in the right direction but are inadequate. Currently, a student using the library who wishes to use an all-gender bathroom has to exit the library, show their ID to security, ride the elevator seven floors, walk to the back of the floor and show their ID again to re-enter the library. While the new first-floor bathroom would significantly reduce the burden of a simple trip to the restroom, it is not an equitable solution.

There are concerns that since it took three years to construct one bathroom and with no timeline two bathrooms on the first-floor, an additional bathroom in the library could be many years away. This makes conversion of current bathrooms to all-gender bathrooms by hanging a sign significantly more attractive—especially for a school in the midst of a five million dollar short-fall.

At the bare minimum, the Graduate Center could follow Etsy’s lead and make an explicit statement that gender is not binary. It could also do more.
Etsy’s conflicting signs are a result of work-around to bring the company into compliance with both New York City and New York State laws. While the city has laws to protect gender non-conforming individuals, New York State does not. In fact, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act has been passed in the New York State assembly eight times, but the New York State Senate has failed to bring it to a vote. This places Etsy in a legal gray area because only city officials are charged with the administration of both state and local codes. It is not always clear when one code will be applied.

But unlike Etsy’s offices, the Graduate Center is a New York City public building. It is responsible for meeting only New York City codes according to the New York City-New York State Task Force on Building and Fire Safety.

Legislation is also currently before the New York City Council which would amend the city’s building codes to allow all public bathrooms to be labeled all-gender. Initial hearings on the bill began 14 January 2016.

Even the most risk-adverse administrator should conclude that there is no barrier to creating more all-gender bathrooms at the Graduate Center.
While it would be a significant step for the Graduate Center to designate all of its bathrooms all-gender, it could also make smaller strides against gender discrimination. As the Committee for All-Gender Bathrooms has made clear, not all bathrooms have to change. Bathrooms on every other floor, for example, could be re-designated to accommodate those who prefer to use segregated, gender binary bathrooms.

The Graduate Center has a critical opportunity to continue to be a leader against gender discrimination among academic institutions. We must act on Chase Robinson’s charge to the Graduate Center to draw on the widest possible range of experience, including gender expression and gender identity. And we can do it by simply changing some signs.

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