This High School's Action on Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Will Make Your Day

Source: Barrack Hebrew Academy

It seems new ways are being discovered to deny LGBT people some of the most basic public courtesies all the time. Trans and gender nonconforming individuals in particular have faced a slew of legislation recently meant to force them to use bathrooms according to sex assigned at birth rather than their actual gender identity.

At least one high school dares to be different. On March 12, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, made a bold stand for young LGBT individuals by opening its first ever gender-neutral bathroom. The school dedicated the facilities in honor of an alumnus, Patrick Rock, who transitioned 10 years ago as a senior. 

When roughly 70% of trans people have reported being denied entrance, assaulted or harassed while trying to use a restroom, and trans teens are much more likely to avoid using bathrooms than their straight or cisgender peers, the move is a reminder of the power of inclusive spaces.

More than just a bathroom: Such facilities may be especially important during high school. Rock told Mic that he didn't feel there were good bathroom options for him during high school, which often made life difficult because he wasn't ready to come out as trans. 

"I opted for the women's room, but would occasionally run into someone who didn't know me and would give me the once over — checking to see whether I really 'belonged' there," Rock said.

Rock also acknowledged that for trans people who only have access to gendered bathrooms, every day can be stressful, time-consuming and exhausting: "Imagine spending every day strategizing when you can use the toilet, such that you have the lowest chance of running into someone else there. Imagine shaping your life around that question — skipping after school activities, because the locker room feels too exposed, missing out on a cool conversation because you need to give yourself time to walk to the most remote and underused bathroom on campus, and so forth."

Patrick Rock addresses students at Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Source: Courtesy of Barrack Hebrew Academy

Three years ago, Rock shared this struggle with the Barrack students' Gay-Straight Alliance and their advisers, who then moved to plan a gender-neutral restroom.

"Patrick [met with] the club, and we asked [him], 'What was one thing that was an issue while you were here?' And he said bathrooms," said Rachel Kolman, co-president of Barrack's Gay-Straight Alliance. "We thought it would be great to have a bathroom for ... everyone who feels uncomfortable for one reason or another to be in a public bathroom."

"For most people this will remain just a bathroom," said Sharon P. Levin, head of school at Barrack Hebrew Academy, who also told Mic that there's been no pushback on the inclusive facilities. Instead, she noted, the school recognizes that certain community members may need a safe bathroom space for various reasons, whether it be gender identity, a medical issue or other reasons that require privacy.

If only that were the case everywhere. Unfortunately, bathroom usage remains a great source of anxiety for trans and gender nonconforming people, who face the daily threat of violence or discrimination for simply trying to pee. 

A growing need: According to a report from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, more than 150 colleges across the country now have gender-neutral restrooms. In California, a recently enacted state law protects the ability of trans students at public schools to use the restroom that best corresponds with their gender identity. But elsewhere, many other students and their allies are rallying for the resource at their school. 

Last October, one group at San Diego State University staged a "shit-in" to advocate for increased access to gender-neutral bathrooms. The campus has hundreds of gender-segregated bathrooms for its 32,000 students, according to the Huffington Post, but very few gender-neutral offerings — and those are inconvenient to reasonably access. 

A sign marks the entrance to a gender neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Bloomington, Vt., Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007.
Source: Toby Talbot/AP

These spaces are necessary. Not only are gender-neutral bathrooms a demonstrated necessity, but there's also a dire need for more respect and inclusion of trans people, so that they may peacefully use restrooms that best correspond with their gender-identity. That's why Barrack Hebrew Academy's installation of a gender-neutral bathroom matters. Hopefully, other schools and public institutions will follow suit. 

"When I walk into a space where there's a gender-neutral bathroom, I know that I can relax. I can use the bathroom when I need to, I don't need to worry about my safety while I'm there," Rock told Mic. "And I don't have to constantly monitor who else has left the room to make sure I'm not going to run into anyone who might not like trans people in the bathroom. [Gender-neutral bathrooms] let me feel safe, and go back to living the rest of my life."