Trans* Activists Degender Wesleyan Bathrooms, Face Charges and Fines

This fall, an anonymous group of trans* and gender-nonconforming students degendered public bathrooms at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The students removed existing gendered signs and replaced them with inclusive, all gender paper signs like the one below.

Many signs also included a manifesto, penned under the pseudonym “Pissed Off Trans* People,” calling for Wesleyan administration to desegregate bathrooms and acknowledge the existence and value of trans* and gender non-conforming people:

We demand that Wesleyan University stop segregating bathrooms along gender lines and provide all-gender bathrooms in all buildings in the University.

We believe gender-segregated bathrooms create uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations for trans and gender-variant presenting people.

We believe gender-segregated bathrooms reinforce trans* invisibility at Wesleyan.

We resent statements by Wesleyan Administration that all-gender bathrooms are widely available on this campus, when they are in fact often difficult to find or unmarked, in inconvenient locations, or simply not available.

We acknowledge that some people, particularly women, may feel unsafe in bathrooms that are no longer gender-segregated. We invite further discussion about this issue, but are currently not aware of any studies suggesting women are more likely to experience harassment or harm in all-gender bathrooms. (Citation: Rothblatt, Martine Aliana. The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender. New York: Crown, 1995.)

We believe it is not the duty of trans* or gender-variant students to self-advocate for all- gender bathrooms on their hall/place of residence, and that residential bathrooms should be all-gender.

We want to remind white and documented people and people with class privilege that those most likely to experience violence and increased surveillance from gender- segregated bathrooms are people of color, poor people, and undocumented people.

The group uploaded the signs and manifesto so that individuals could participate on their own. According to the press release from Mariama Eversly, the materials garnered over 200 downloads.

In response to this activism, Wesleyan administration singled out three students and charged them with hefty fines and unspecific charges. In spite of evidence that these students were only “present at the sign removal in the campus center, they are being charged for the removal of all the bathroom gender signs on the entire university campus.” The three students are being charged $5,245 in fines, $157 per sign “plus additional unexplained fees.” According to the press release, the disciplinary proceedings have been “chaotic and isolating,” with the administration indicting these students based on singular evidence extrapolated in order to make an example out of them.

MyDoorSign.com has offered to replace some signs for free with all gender inclusive signs like the one pictured above, but Wesleyan administration is still charging the three students for all signs.

The controversy at Wesleyan is symptomatic of larger problems in current public consciousness: the knee-jerk tendency of people in positions of power to freak out when established cultural gender norms are questioned without thought to the ways in which we could all benefit from progress and change; the hostile, excessive and often violent response to student activism from administrations; and the anti-intellectualist conservatism rampant in America. This is par for the course as far as history is concerned, but we can do better. What’s also troubling is that when it comes to disciplinary action taken against students, elite universities like Wesleyan often disregard class issues involved. Wesleyan’s population is made of students from wealthy and working class backgrounds. Whereas $5K is payable for some families, for others the fines may be too much. As of now, there is no indication that the administration has even taken this into account.

Wesleyan’s over-the-top response comes at a time when trans* access to bathrooms has made headlines all over the country. Earlier this year, California approved a bill requiring K12 public schools in the state to allow trans* students access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender identityCampus Pride released their annual list of the “Top 25 LGBT Friendly Colleges and Universities,” giving weight to those institutions that offer gender-free bathrooms. Even Washington D.C.-based Starbucks have gone gender-free. Bathroom access is a basic need for everyone, including trans* and gender-nonconforming people. It’s time for Wesleyan and other institutions to show respect to their students and their identities. It’s time to stop punishing students for doing important activism work and opening eyes to progressive possibilities. And it’s time for people in authority to stop digging in their heels and admit that maybe our norms are fucked up.

Wesleyan alumni are currently circulating a petition to urge the administration to do the right thing and step up in support of trans* and gender-nonconforming students.

Though the school considers the de-gendering of bathrooms to be property damage and vandalism, far more destructive are the conditions which gave rise to the students’ actions. Wesleyan must recognize the root cause of the actions: a climate in which trans students feel silenced, unwelcome and unsafe. Rather than punish the very people who are being harmed, Wesleyan needs to look at how it can create a more inclusive campus. Those people and institutions preventing some community members from feeling safe are not under investigation nor being held accountable. Rather, only those standing up for a safer campus have been sanctioned.

According to Wesleyan alum Una Osato, more than 225 alumni from all over the world have signed the petition.

Many alumni have written in saying how upset they are to hear that the current students are going up against the same issues they themselves organized around 10 or more years ago, which painfully shows how the school has not seriously taken into account the needs of marginalized students. This is not an isolated incident just happening to trans student activists. This is happening institutionally; just last year our alma mater got rid of need-blind admissions.

Osato said she was heartened by the response from the alumni, and by how decentralized the grassroots organizing has been: “It’s really about a climate on campus and supporting a larger struggle for social justice.”

The Wesleyan disciplinary hearing is set to take place Wednesday, December 4 at 4:30 p.m. EST in the North College administrative building.

If you want to find gender inclusive bathrooms, Safe2Pee.org is a crowdsourced listing of gender-free and trans*-friendly bathrooms across the U.S. and Canada.

Profile photo of SJ Sindu

SJ has written 12 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Not only am I greatly distressed by this, I’m also extremely confused: I thought this was the sort of thing for which one was rewarded at Wesleyan! After all, wasn’t PCU a thinly veiled depiction of life at Wesleyan? Has the university regressed so dramatically in the intervening twenty years?

  2. Thumb up 6

    Please log in to vote

    I am honestly baffled by people’s hysteria whenever the subject of non-gender segregated bathrooms come up. Like, if a man is going to assault a woman, do they really think a picture of a stick figure with a dress on the door is going to stop him? And if you look at actual incidents of violence in bathrooms, it’s non-gender conforming individuals who are often the victims. Inclusive bathrooms would prevent violence, not encourage it. The college my aunt attended in the late 60s and early 70s had gender neutral bathrooms and the earth did not start rotating backwards and the sun did not fall from the sky.

    Frankly, the only legit complaint about gender neutral bathrooms I’ve heard is the concern over how much dirtier men’s rooms are compared to women’s. But the solution to this issue isn’t segregation, it’s teaching our sons not to be such lazy, filthy little creatures.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      If a man walks into a clearly labeled women’s restroom, bystanders will know he has bad intentions; gender-neutral restrooms give him a free pass to walk into a space where women are vulnerable without causing any alarm to others. Thus, it would be easier to sexually assault women in gender-netural bathrooms than in those clearly marked “women”.

      I feel like sometimes this website gets so wrapped up in its progressive politics that it forgets that most of us live in the real world. And I don’t mean that negatively, I wish to hell I was at Wesleyan! Instead, I’m at a college in rural VA. Men here would absolutely take advantage of gender neutral bathrooms, and it should be okay to give women these safe spaces. If gender neutral restrooms are a central component of trans* activism, they should work on adding a third restroom alongside the men’s and women’s for anybody else, since they are comfortable being in that vulnerable situation with mixed company.

      I’m not trying to hate, I understand the struggles of the author, or at least I’m trying to. And she shouldn’t be sexually assaulted when trying to use the restroom either. But just because no studies exist on sexual assault in all-gender bathrooms (of course they don’t, no one outside of these beautiful liberal spaces uses them!) doesn’t mean there still isn’t a legitimate threat.

      • Thumb up 6

        Please log in to vote

        But if a bathroom has enough foot traffic outside that people would notice a man going into a bathroom marked “women,” he wouldn’t choose that room to rape someone in anyway because that’s enough people around to hear the assault and/or have random bystanders wander in to use the bathroom themselves. If a bathroom is out of the way/isolated enough to assault someone in, a “women” sign on the door won’t save anyone. And a having a third gender neutral option won’t prevent those assaults either.

        That said, I don’t have a problem with providing a third gender-neutral bathroom. I do think that’s an easier sell than universal gender neutral rooms. Full trans* inclusion in society and the elimination of sexual assault (and people’s fears around it) are long-term projects, and in the mean time trans* people and gender non-conformists need a place to pee right now, so I’ll support it.

      • Thumb up 4

        Please log in to vote

        If a butch or trans woman who is read as male walks into a women’s washroom, she will get the shit kicked out of her by people like you who assume you can tell a person’s gender by looking. That is a thing that happens on a regular basis, not a hypothetical fear of what you think men would do.

  3. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m definitely upset that students are being fined that much money for a worthy cause, but I kind of feel like removing the signs entirely may not have been the best decision. I remember at my former university, someone had posted gender-inclusive signs on the washrooms in my building. They stayed there for about a week until they were ripped off (with the taped ends remaining, making the whole act seem more threatening than if the whole thing had been removed).

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      I agree. Gender-neutral bathrooms are important, and I completely respect activism, but I always have questions/concerns when the activism results in missing or damaged property. It is sort of a fundamental question, I suppose – how can activists make their point effectively, without taking actions which only serve to alienate the people they are trying to reach? And, to what extent should they even consider it?

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        The former university I alluded to is making a huge public effort to create all-gender washrooms alongside the gender segregated ones (to respect the large Muslim community on campus, as well as other groups who want to maintain division). The irony is that the publicity surrounding that effort had a backlash that is exactly what these Wesley students outright did – the idea of a complete replacement of ALL washrooms as all-gendered which terrifies people outside of gender-progressive circles.

  4. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    As a trans woman myself and having been in such awkward situations (especially earlier on in transition) I can tell you from personal experience that little is as distressing as having to go and the nascent anxiety about getting verbally or physically assaulted for using the restroom. Such a basic need really should be a non-issue and I am happy to see cities in the US begin to adopt this policy (Philadelphia and Portland, OR come to mind). Taken from
    a recent article covering the inclusion of gender-neutral bathrooms in Multnomah County:

    As gender-neutral bathrooms become more and more common, many of us won’t be affected much by the change. But for some, it makes all the difference. Cogen tells The Oregonian, ”Some folks have told us they literally have to wait and go home during the day to go to the bathroom. … Clearly, that is suffering no one should have to endure.”

  5. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    I’m really disappointed in how the administration at Wes handled this. As someone familiar with the school, I’d have hoped for a better response. The school definitely advertises itself as ultra liberal…but apparently gender neutral bathrooms takes it too far?? Ugh.

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Sometimes when the women’s bathroom has no soap or the line is too long, I march my happy ass into the men’s bathroom, surprising and horrifying more than a few unsuspecting guys. I never understood it. Let me pee in peace k thanks bye

  7. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Get it the fuck together, Wesleyan. Nearly this EXACT thing happened MORE THAN A DECADE AGO when I was there. A group of queer and trans students messed with the bathroom signs and chalked campus, and two students got SJB’d and stuck with the fines. Incidentally, one of the students who was SJB’s was one of the only trans people to have publicly come out on campus, and they got tagged by some ass hole who lived in their dorm. There are so many things about this current situation that are frustrating – not only that Wesleyan is way behind the times on this gender neutral bathroom business (there are PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS where I live that have gender neutral bathrooms), but can we talk about the implications of further traumatizing students who were reacting to a traumatizing experience (having to use gendered bathrooms) in the first place?

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    At UT Austin, they have a policy (within the last 4 years I think) that all new buildings have to have at least one single stall, non-gendered restroom on every floor, and they’ve turned many existing gendered single-occupancy bathrooms into non-gendered bathrooms.

    My point being, there are many ways to deal with this. Get it together, universe. And hook ‘em.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’d vote for an additional non-gendered bathroom.

    I have no choice but to use a unisex bathroom at work, however, I know the cluster of people who use it. There’s no way I’d use a non-gendered bathroom in a public space.

    Assault is real and yes it can happen to anyone, but at least if I come face-to-face with a male in a women’s rest room, I know he’s either made a humorous mistake, or he’s there with bad intentions…

    Our shopping mall has had a number of cases recently, of men attempting covert filming of girls/women in stalls. You can’t ignore crime statistics, or that women are more likely to come out of these scenarios as the “loser” :(

    I note they put the wheelchair symbol on their signs. How very inclusive, but I would almost bet that the bathrooms they used to make their point aren’t fully accessible to people in wheelchairs.

    • Thumb up 2

      Please log in to vote

      How would you know if you were to “come face-to-face with a male in a women’s restroom”? This is predicated on the cissexist notion that one’s gender is immediately knowable through superficial observation and contributes to violence against gender non-conforming individuals attempting to access binary-gendered spaces.

      Gendered incidents of voyeurism and violence in bathrooms do occur, and are statistically most often male-on-female — that is not being denied. However, they occur in already binary-gendered spaces, so clearly these spaces are not preventing that violence from occurring.

      There were two versions of the sign: one for accessible bathrooms and one for inaccessible bathrooms. The paper all-gender signs were also reprinted using a braille labeler when possible. (It might be interesting to note that the temporary signs they have been replaced with by administrative figures include neither braille nor symbols/images.) The students have been in discussion with members of WSDR (Wesleyan Students for Disability Rights) to ensure that the concerns of people with disabilities are addressed, as well as to work together in advocating for more accessible bathrooms for everyone.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        How would you know if you were to “come face-to-face with a male in a women’s restroom”? This is predicated on the cissexist notion that one’s gender is immediately knowable through superficial observation and contributes to violence against gender non-conforming individuals attempting to access binary-gendered spaces.

        I agree, and I’d also like to point out that anyone engaging in premeditated sexual assault in a public bathroom—I assume this isn’t the sort of thing one does on the spur of the moment—would, in order to avoid identification, wear a ski mask or some such thing, further reducing what can be gleaned from a “face-to-face” encounter.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.