Deconstructing Binaries: Thacher’s Shift Toward Gender Neutral Bathrooms

By Will Harding ’20

Before the Thacher community departed for their Fall Extra Day Trips this past August, many noticed a change in the Commons that caused a buzz among the student body: the signs reading “Men” and “Women” on the bathroom doors had been removed, new head-to-toe stalls were being installed, and urinals had been pulled out of the restroom formerly labeled “Men.”  “Will we all be able to go into the same bathroom?”, some asked. “How did I not know about this?”, others wondered. Groups of community members of all genders entered and examined the new layouts. Others simply inquired, “Will we get our urinals back?”

Though the change seemed abrupt to some students, Thacher’s Gender Identity Task Force, composed of Ms. McMahon, Dean of Students; Mr. Balano, Thacher’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion; and four members of the Board of Trustees, was formed at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year in order to “look at what we could do at Thacher to support all of our students, specifically looking at our policies in regard to gender identity,” including “dress code, athletic team participation, and bathroom guidelines,” says Ms. McMahon.  “We spoke with other independent schools, Thacher alumni, legal experts, and Spectrum,” she continues, and “what we learned most prominently in our research was to be very clear about the School’s policies in our efforts to support all students.”

The task force also took into consideration California laws on the implementation of gender-neutral restrooms, though Mr. Balano also urged the committee to ask itself, “California and federal laws aside, how does Thacher’s mission call us to respond to the changes and challenges of our time?”  Thacher’s response fortunately aligns with California laws on gender-neutral bathrooms, and the committee, with little to no opposition, decided that gender-neutral bathrooms were a necessary step in promoting Thacher’s value of inclusivity of all students. Now, says Ms. McMahon, “There are a variety of options on campus such as single stall bathrooms, dormitory bathrooms, and gender-neutral bathrooms, and so I am hopeful that every community member can find a situation with which they are comfortable.”

“I am hopeful that every community member can find a situation with which they are comfortable.”

Positive Response

Many members of the Thacher community have responded positively to the change.  Lily Harding, a co-head of Spectrum, Thacher’s affinity group for LGBTQ+ students, says, “The gender-neutral bathrooms help to create a more inclusive environment that allows students of all gender identities to feel comfortable going to the bathroom, something we all do every day.  Though the change does not completely solve the inequalities that non-cisgender students face, it is a great step toward gender inclusivity.” At Thacher, where daily aspects of life such as dormitories, athletic teams, and advisee groups are all gendered, a transition away from gendered bathrooms, coupled with a change to a gender-neutral dress code, indicate that the School is progressing toward more all-gender-inclusive ideals.  

The change, which alters what society has often taught the American public about who should use which restroom, seemed strange to some community members in the beginning.  “At first I was somewhat skeptical about gender-neutral bathrooms… [but] once I thought about it, I decided we should strive to embrace the gender-neutral bathroom space as our new norm,” says one faculty member.  “It was kind of weird at first,” concurs a freshman, “opening a bathroom door and seeing girls in there, but it’s grown on me.” And for others, the change simply “makes no difference.”

Still more community members adamantly support the shift.  One sophomore writes, “Outstanding. What a wonderful step in the process of making Thacher an all-inclusive community.”  Another student shares, “[it creates] an environment in which going to the restroom with a friend is no longer limited to girls,” adding, “The gender-neutral bathrooms showed me how ingrained in society our division of gender is, and how easily that barrier can be broken with a simple shared space.”  For many members of the community, the shift feels like a positive step in the School’s policies of inclusivity.

Concerns and Skepticism

There are, however, many members of the community who have concerns about the gender-neutral restrooms in the Commons and Math and Science Building, the most common of which is that they might take away a private space for non-male students.  One senior, who identifies as female, recalls: “[the bathrooms] used to be a safe space where I could escape for a few minutes without the scrutiny of boys.” A staff member, who is “a strong supporter of the principle,” agrees: “I’ve always subconsciously considered women’s bathrooms a safe haven of sorts: a place where a call out to the room for a tampon would not be caused for embarrassment; a place to go for a good cry; a place out of the view of men,” although adding, “I’m sure I’ll get over it.”

Some in the community also feel uncomfortable using the same bathrooms as students and adults, respectively, of the opposite gender.  A female junior writes, “There are certain faculty and students who I personally would not want to be alone in the bathroom with,” a serious concern as the new restrooms are intended to make the student body as a whole more comfortable using the public restrooms on campus rather than less.  

Most commonly, some students feel they no longer have the privacy they would like in the bathrooms during menstruation.  “It is… frustrating for girls because if you need to change your tampon or pad, there is not a great way to do so completely discreetly and it isn’t really an experience you want to share with the rest of the world,” says a senior.  This concern, echoed by many members of the School’s community, is something to take note of, and “is a good topic to research further, which we will,” says Ms. McMahon, “the goal being that everyone is comfortable.”

A complaint that a few students have is that the cost of renovating the bathrooms to make them gender-neutral outweighs their benefits.  One junior argues, “I support making the school an accepting place for everyone, but this doesn’t seem effective or economic…. I would love [an] explanation regarding the cost and why this was picked over other areas for funding.”  It is true that the change did have a price tag, though the actual figure is unclear. Mr. Balano, however, explains that the justification of the cost is plain: “Diversity costs money.” He adds that progress towards diversity is “not something you can just slip through the cracks here and there.”     

Some also question the necessity of the change.  A faculty member writes, “Did we solve a problem that we didn’t have?  Thus creating potential discomfort for many?” Similarly, one student argues that if someone “does not identify with a gender, let them choose which bathroom to go into and it will create a lot less unease.”  Ms. McMahon, however, makes the point that it isn’t that simple for non-cisgender students: “If someone is questioning their gender identity, bathrooms become a difficult aspect to navigate. Do they use the bathroom with which they identify? But what if they are not ready to share that information publicly? What if a community member does not define along binary gender lines – which bathroom would they use?”  Still, some community members believe that the change was not needed.

In contrast, an anonymous student argues that complaints about the change being “unnecessary” are unfounded: “I am actually really tired of people saying ‘oh, everyone still uses the original bathrooms’ or ‘it makes me uncomfortable.’ Truthfully, there are more trans people in this school that are uncomfortable almost everywhere- and not having open spaces like this makes it super difficult for us, especially those of us that aren’t out. I’m thankful for the gender-neutral bathrooms and the fact that the administration sees us.

“Truthfully, there are more trans people in this school that are uncomfortable almost everywhere- and not having open spaces like this makes it super difficult for us, especially those of us that aren’t out. I’m thankful for the gender-neutral bathrooms and the fact that the administration sees us.”

Looking Forward

The shift to gender-neutral bathrooms has stirred up lively discussion among the Thacher community.  “This is clearly a new situation for our community and one that takes some time to get used to,” says Ms. McMahon, adding,  “I feel confident in our students, faculty, and staff to gain more comfort as gender-neutral bathrooms become more commonplace everywhere in our society; clearly this is an ongoing process.”  Though the new situation may cause some people concern, its purpose is to further the School’s goal of fostering an environment in which all students feel comfortable. It will take time to get used to and time to perfect, but these bathrooms are a landmark in the School’s progress toward gender inclusivity.