WNPR

Three Rivers Students Face Multi-Year Battle For Gender-Neutral Bathrooms

Nov 13, 2017

The idea for a gender-neutral bathroom at Three Rivers Community College has been on the table for at least two years by one account, and up to four by others.

At first, school administration thought about putting the bathroom in a single stall far from the center of campus. Students rejected that idea. Then they thought about renovating a janitor's closet, but that cost too much money. They thought about converting a multi-stall bathroom but ran into other concerns. More on that later.

There's a new plan in the works being reviewed by architects. But many students are wondering -- what's the hold up?

"My organizations that I used to lead have begged, pleaded, borrowed, stole, blackmailed, for a gender neutral bathroom," said Benjamin Crowley, a Three Rivers student. He was relating his woes to Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut's 17-college system. Ojakian said when it comes to bathrooms, students at different colleges want different things.

"I'm leaving it up to the students and to the institutions," Ojakian said. Crowley shot back: "We have completely gender-neutral students who don't identify on either side of the binary."

Ojakian asked why they couldn’t get a bathroom.

"They keep telling us it's coming," Crowley said. "The first board I was on campaigned heavily for it. We were told it was with an architect, it was with a consultant, they didn't have it in our budget."

"It's a bathroom," Ojakian said. "It should be relatively easy to deal with. I did not know it had not been done yet."

Students had put together a formal proposal, expressed interested in fundraising to pay for it, and they even consulted with an outside architect.

"We’ve done a lot," Crowley said.

Kathryn Gaffney, a spokesperson for Three Rivers, recognized that the process has been slow.

"We agree, we should have moved faster on all this, we'd have liked to have moved faster on all this," Gaffney told WNPR.

Back in 2011, Connecticut passed a law that requires schools to allow students to use the bathroom connected to the gender with which they identify, not the sex of their birth. There technically isn't a requirement for gender-neutral bathrooms.

"The fact is that we already do have two gender-neutral bathrooms that are in the library, but the problem is the library isn't open all the time," Gaffney said. "And the other fact is that we don't have other single-use restrooms that we can easily convert."

And about that idea of converting a multi-stall bathroom into a gender-neutral one... that's where things get a little complicated. Students from Yale University learned about this complication first hand.

Like Three Rivers, they also wanted gender neutral bathrooms. But, unlike at Three Rivers, they didn't run into administrative hurdles. They got blocked by the state building code.

To be up to code, buildings are required to have a certain number of gender-specific bathrooms. A building inspector rejected Yale's attempt to get this requirement waived through a variance. The students appealed the decision, but the appeal failed. Now they're suing the state to try to get the code changed.

Here's a portion of the lawsuit's complaint:

A section from Yale's lawsuit against the state.

"It discourages new construction and existing construction from transitioning a men's room or a women's room into a gender-neutral bathroom because it throws the numbers off," said Robin McHaelen, founder and executive director of True Colors, a Hartford-based nonprofit that works with schools and others to meet the needs of the LBGT community.

She said at the end of the day, "People just want to pee, you know? Leave them alone."

That's what frustrates students like Benjamin Crowley. It could have been as simple as slapping a unisex symbol on a bathroom door. He told Ojakian that he thinks a big part of the problem is an overall lack of sensitivity toward gender nonconforming people. Ojakian told him that he wants to help.

"I feel strongly that we need to pay attention to these matters," Ojakian told him, "so I will definitely do something about that, OK?"

The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities is also a plaintiff in Yale's suit against the state to change the bathroom building code.