The Importance of Gender-Neutral Spaces

by Tom Wiley

We are thrilled to announce that The Rockefeller University has opened its first gender-neutral restroom, just outside of the Faculty Club! It may not occur to the well-meaning cisgender person that the women’s or men’s room sign can actually serve as a barrier to entry for transgender, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming (TGNC) people.

Have you ever needed to pee and done six or seven passes by the gendered bathroom door and were dying to go in but were too afraid that you may get verbally harassed—or worse?  Instead, you think, “that’s okay—I can hold it for the next seven hours until I get home from work.” For many TGNC people, this scenario is routine life.

In 2013 The Williams Institute, part of UCLA’s School of Law, did a survey of TGNC people in Washington, DC, about harassment in public restrooms. “Overall, 65 respondents (70 percent) reported experiencing one or more of these problems. Eighteen percent of respondents have been denied access to a gender-segregated public restroom, while 68 percent have experienced some sort of verbal harassment and 9 percent have experienced some form of physical assault when accessing or using gender-segregated public restrooms.”

This survey was done before passage of North Carolina’s HB2 bill that specifically targeted TGNC people, preventing them from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. This bill was passed on March 23, 2016, and repealed March 30, 2017. For many, especially cisgender folks, North Carolina put the struggle for transgender rights in national the forefront, as the bathroom bill garnered significant media attention. Now, speaking from personal experience and having been verbally harassed and barred access to bathrooms (though never at Rockefeller!), I would not be surprised if a new survey would show that the percentage of TGNC people who have been harassed using bathrooms would be significantly higher since the advent of the HB2 law. Even though the law was repealed, lasting damage is there.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in New York City, an anti-discrimination law was passed in the early 2000s that bars employers from disallowing TGNC people from using facilities that match their gender identity. This year, the GENDA law was passed and extended that protection to all TGNC people in New York State. Despite protections, harassment often goes undeclared.

In our current political climate, we need action. The Rockefeller University has exhibited true support the TGNC population by creating a necessary gender-neutral bathroom facility, which benefits the TGNC population at Rockefeller as well as transgender visitors, including the many speakers and guests PRISM has hosted at our events. This action sets a standard for universities and other employers.