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April 4 2016

Making the World Safer for Women: Letting Men Mingle With Them in the Restroom

Charlotte Allen

Here's how to make women "feel safe": Let men into the ladies' room!

That seems to be the logic behind an e-mail directive from Bill Mea, acting president of The Cooper Union, decreeing that henceforth there shall be no "gender classifications" for restrooms on the campus of the New York City arts-and-architecture college. Mea wrote:

Going forward, we will identify the restrooms in the Foundation Building and 41 Cooper Square and the common-area restrooms in the Residence Hall as follows:

  • Restroom with Urinals and Stalls
  • Restroom with Only Stalls 
  • Restroom Single Occupancy

We are creatures of habit and most of us will continue using those restrooms that we normally have used, but they will no longer be owned by a specific gender.

According to Mea, "gendered spaces"--that is, public bathrooms whose doors say "Men" and "Women"--make the budding artists and architects who attend Cooper Union feel threatened, indeed so threatened that their health suffers and they can't study:

I thank our students who raised the issue of gendered spaces and how they create health concerns and make some of us feel unsafe in an environment where health and safety are the top priorities in a student’s ability to learn.

The idea behind Mea's ukase seems to be that transgender people ought to be able to use the bathrooms that correspond to the gender with which they identify. But New York City already has a law forbidding discrimination on the basis of "gender identity or expression," and regulations implementing that law already require restrooms to post signs indicating that they are open to whatever gender identities their users have chosen.

But that, apparently, wasn't good enough for Mea--or for some student-activists at Cooper Union who have been pressuring the school for two years to get rid of single-sex restrooms. As Inside Higher Education reports:

L, one of the students who pushed for the change (and asked to be referred to only as L), said removing gender distinctions entirely helps transgender students in a way simply allowing them to use men’s or women’s bathrooms does not.

“Even if it is legal, I have been followed and harassed going into either bathroom because I don’t present as gender conforming. I’ll get assaulted whether it’s illegal or not,” L said. “There’s a lot more than can be done, and I don’t want it to feel like the end-all, be-all is making bathrooms degendered. But it is one step, and it’s pretty easy. It’s literally just taking signs down.”

Actually, it's hard to imagine students at an arty art school like Cooper Union harassing anyone--except for those fuddy-duddy administrators who hung the "Ladies" sign on the door of the ladies' room. And, given that there are only about 700,000 transgender people in total out of a U.S. population of more than 3 million, it's likely that "L" is one of perhaps two non-"gender conforming" students at Cooper Union, whose student body totals less than 1,000.

Furthermore, there's an irony here: It's one thing to let a women's bathroom be used by someone who calls herself a woman even though her parents and the doctor thought otherwise when she was born. It's another to let a women's bathroom be used by a man who calls himself a man--which is what taking down the signs actually means. I'm waiting to see what happens at Cooper Union when some heterosexual male perv decides he'd rather use the "Restroom with Stalls Only."



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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