Gender-neutral restrooms proposed for high school

BAR HARBOR — In Maine, 66 percent of transgender people avoid using a public restroom and 31 percent of those alter their eating and drinking habits in order to be able to avoid it, according to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

That information was part of a presentation recently given to the entire Mount Desert Island High School student body by students representing the Civil Rights Team and the Gay Straight Diversity Alliance, proposing that the school consider designating some restrooms gender neutral.

“I think that it’s a really important issue because people shouldn’t have to have the extra stress about which bathroom to use,” said senior Gianna Turk, one of the students who gave the presentation. “You’re at school. You have plenty of things to think about.”

Prior to the presentation made in early November, the Civil Rights Team created a student survey to find out how their peers felt about having gender neutral restrooms in the high school.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t know what gender neutral means,” said senior Ronan Dwyer, another student who was part of the presentation.

Restaurants, stores and even some schools already have signs next to a typically single occupancy restroom labeled “Unisex,” which means anyone can use it. Gender neutral is the same concept with a different name. A gender neutral restroom is one that anyone, no matter their gender or the gender they identify with, can use.

For those in the process of figuring out how they choose to identify themselves, this option can be a pretty big deal. In their presentation, Dwyer and Turk included a couple of first-person stories that were submitted anonymously.

“I once went to a conference with my civil rights team when I was in middle school,” one student’s story began. “Back then, I wasn’t out to anybody. I was just questioning my gender. I went to wander off to the area where the bathrooms were during a break and I came across a room where plastered over the regular bathroom sign was a paper that said, ‘Gender Neutral Bathroom.’ … My first thought was, ‘Holy Heck, this exists??’ I was happy … It’s something that can make the smallest difference to somebody. But, when you boil it down, it’s just a bathroom. There really should be no debate. Anyone can use it.”

One of the biggest concerns voiced in the pre-presentation survey that students filled out was sharing restrooms with people of the opposite gender. Turk said it would be best for the gender-neutral restroom to be a single-room one, rather than one with multiple stalls, would be best.

“We have not come forward with any specific restrooms that would be changed at this time,” said Michelle Merica, an English teacher and advisor to the Civil Rights Team. “We want to emphasize student safety and privacy. So, we are very critical and careful about the restrooms we potentially convert to gender-neutral.”

To help members of the Civil Rights Team get a better idea of the restrooms in the high school building, Merica brought them on an in-house field trip.

“It wasn’t the most fun field trip but it was certainly enlightening,” said Turk. “It was pretty gross, actually.”

Now that the two organizations have put the idea out to their peers, a second, post-presentation survey is set to circulate for more feedback. Once that information has been collected, the plan is to discuss logistics with faculty and staff and, ultimately, have a conversation with the school board.

“We’re moving slowly,” said Merica, who said the Civil Rights Team has tripled in participation over the last three years. She plans to host open office hours for students and staff to discuss the concept of gender-neutral restrooms.

“We are lucky to live in a community that is open, inclusive and responsive to individual needs,” said Principal Matt Haney in an email. “Likewise, I continue to be impressed with the student leaders that so passionately and effectively advocate for change.”

Turk and Dwyer noted that the gender-neutral restrooms likely wouldn’t be in place before they graduate next spring. But they said they hope to make a difference for underclassmen and future students.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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