Gender harassment down the toilet at WSUV

students hope to curb any hostilities on campus through Gender-Neutral Bathroom Week

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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When students at Vancouver’s university campus go to the restroom next week, they’ll be thinking about gender roles.

At least that’s the hope of the organizers of the first Gender-Neutral Bathroom Week at Washington State University Vancouver. All next week, 14 of the about 50 restrooms on campus will be open to all who need a potty break, no matter what gender they are or appear to be.

The weeklong campaign is the brainchild of two sociology students -- Meredith Williams and Janae Teal.

Since the two came to Vancouver from WSU’s Pullman campus last year, Teal said she’s been getting harassed in campus bathrooms more often than she was used to at her old campus.

Teal has short hair, likes wearing ball caps and has a ring piercing her bottom lip.

She said she’s heard comments such as “I think there’s a guy in the bathroom,” or “I think that’s one of those transgender people,” while she’s in a stall in easy listening distance.

Last fall, Teal organized a showing of a film on gender diversity, in part to remind people that not everyone looks stereotypically masculine or feminine, she said.

“After that, the stories started coming out of the woodwork,” Teal said.

About 50 students have come up to her in the months since to share stories of getting harassed in bathrooms for not looking gender-typical, Teal said. The surprising part for Teal was how many of them were heterosexual men and women.

A married mother of two who likes to wear her hair in a buzz cut told her about getting snide comments in the ladies’ room. A man with long hair said male students asked him if he shouldn’t be in the women’s restroom.

Teal and Williams finally started a campaign using a small $600 grant from the campus diversity council. They showed a series of documentaries on gender issues. They built a website. And they initiated the campus’s first gender-neutral restroom week.

The campus has a few single-stall unisex restrooms already. Many college campuses have designated such facilities in recent years in response to hate crimes committed against transgender students in restrooms. But the existing gender-neutral restrooms at WSUV are few and far between on the sprawling campus, Teal said.

And the two students’ aim isn’t to have more such restrooms built on campus. That would just allow those subjected to the harassment to hide, they say.

The two want to make people think about preconceived notions of gender.

“People are getting the wrong impression of this event,” Teal said.

“We’re not trying to change their identity,” Williams said. “We’re not trying to change gender roles. We just don’t want you to harass someone in the restroom because they look different.”

Such hostilities come up in restrooms because they’re places where gender boundaries are most enforced, said Amy Wharton, director of WSUV’s College of Liberal Arts and a sociology professor.

“We’re all so clued in to gender that we look at people and try to figure out what gender they’re in right away,” Wharton said. “If we can’t place people, we get anxious.”

Wharton has heard that some students on her campus have been made to “feel uncomfortable because they don’t present themselves as traditional male of female,” she said.

“This is an attempt to raise consciousness that not all men and women look alike,” Wharton said.

To get their message across, the two students have recruited 60 “toilet trainers” -- volunteers who will explain why certain restrooms have laminated signs showing a male and female figure, defuse any confrontations that might arise and direct people uncomfortable with the concept to the nearest single-sex restroom.

In almost all buildings, the traditionally segregated stalls will be one floor away, Teal said.

Following the experiment, students are invited to a meeting to exchange views on how it went. The meeting will be at 5 p.m. April 9 in room 129 of the Dengerink Administration Building.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.