Creating gender-inclusive restrooms on campus

As students and campuses across the country push for a more inclusive and open climate, one of the major areas where students demand progress is gender-inclusive restrooms. The LGBT community has raised concerns about transgender student rights, pointing to the harassment or emotional distress transgender students experience when using gendered restrooms.

Facilities leaders are ultimately tasked with making gender-inclusive restrooms a reality. To date, over 150 colleges and universities have created gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, and more are preparing for the move. The University of California (UC) system was one of the first to write a comprehensive policy on gender-inclusive restrooms and how to satisfy the need. While the physical changes to space are typically minimal—mostly changing signage—early movers point to five lessons learned from their own campus conversions.

Lesson #1: Converting existing single-occupancy restrooms is the most cost-effective solution

Cost is an important consideration, since campus mandates for gender-inclusive restrooms are usually unfunded. The most efficient way to create gender-inclusive restrooms is to convert existing single-occupancy restrooms. This typically requires nothing more than changing the sign on the door and adding receptacles for feminine hygiene products (when converting men’s restrooms). Using this approach, one school estimated that $25,000 was sufficient to convert 150 restrooms on their campus.

Lesson #2: Deciding how to indicate gender-inclusive restrooms is a more important decision than you might think

Gender-inclusive restrooms go by different names on different campuses, including “All-Gender Restrooms,” “Gender-Neutral Restrooms,” or simply “Restrooms.” Facilities leaders may find the choice of how to label gender-inclusive restrooms somewhat arbitrary, but LGBT advocates often feel that certain labels can be confusing, exclusive, or even offensive. Facilities leaders must engage campus LGBT leaders in a conversation about how the signs should look before installing them.

In cases where a gender-inclusive restroom is located in a back hallway or when there isn’t one accessible in a building, signs on the restroom door may not be sufficient. Directional signs indicating the nearest gender-inclusive restroom will help ensure that students are able to find the closest one when they need it.

In addition to signage, many campuses are starting to publish lists or up-to-date maps online showing every gender-inclusive restroom on campus.

Lesson #3: Ensure gender-inclusive restrooms are distributed evenly across campus

For gender-inclusive restrooms to serve their purpose, they must be easily accessible from every corner of campus. When selecting which single-occupancy restrooms to convert, choose restrooms in a wide variety of locations to maximize the number of students who can reach them. Moving forward, gender-inclusive restroom policies are likely to include language around “reasonable distance.” When implementing this policy, UCLA’ s Facilities leader assessed each bathroom location on a map to ensure no gender-inclusive restroom is more than a two-minute walk away.

Single-stall restrooms are fairly common on most campuses and can be good candidates for conversion to gender-inclusive restrooms. However, these spaces are sometimes designated as faculty-only restrooms and unavailable for public use. Accommodating gender-inclusive restrooms within a reasonable distance of any spot on campus may require accessing these spaces.

Lesson #4: Converting gendered restrooms into gender-inclusive ones may affect compliance with laws and building codes

Arguably lagging behind the current social and political landscape, many state and local building codes dictate the number of men’s and women’s plumbing fixtures a given building needs without regard to gender-inclusive spaces. As a result, converting a men’s or women’s restroom into a gender-inclusive one may take a building out of compliance. Keeping an updated inventory of all restrooms on campus can help you avoid converting restrooms that are needed to meet the applicable standards.

Interestingly, some Facilities leaders have noted that costs of violating these codes are fairly minor. While certainly not recommended for every institution, some have chosen to intentionally lapse in code compliance (assuming the code will eventually change) in order to avoid more expensive renovations.

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Lesson #5: Consider student privacy when making multi-stall restrooms gender-inclusive

Some institutions are pushing past single-occupancy restrooms and starting to build multi-stall gender-inclusive restrooms. Any multi-stall restroom can be converted to a gender-inclusive one with a signage change, but students are often most comfortable using this type of restroom if each toilet and urinal has a floor-to-ceiling stall. Building any new restrooms with this in mind can make conversion easier down the road, even if your campus isn’t ready to take that step now.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, gender-inclusive restrooms will likely become more common. Schools just embarking on gender-inclusive restrooms can make a good start by identifying and converting single-occupancy restrooms. Facilities leaders should also keep the growing demand for gender-inclusive restrooms in mind when undertaking major renovations or new construction. Planning for gender-inclusive restrooms now can save the headache of converting them in the future.

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