By John Limbaugh
As students on campuses across the country continue to push for a more inclusive and open environment, one of the areas where students demand the most progress is gender-neutral restrooms.
The LGBTQ+ community has raised concerns in recent years about the rights of transgender students. These concerns point to the harassment or emotional distress transgender students experience when using binary restrooms.
According to Campus Pride, and organization working to create safer college environments for LGBTQ+ students, at least 367 universities in the U.S have gender neutral restrooms, and more colleges have been making the push to implement them. Among the schools pushing for this change is the University of Montevallo.
At the second SGA Town Hall meeting this semester, John Denson, the Director of Housing and Student Life at the university, answered students’ questions regarding gender-neutral bathrooms and housing accommodations for transgender students.
The topic is not a new one on UM’s campus, but the push for action was bolstered by the efforts of Josie Shaw, a senior at the university and President of Spectrum, campus LGBTQ+ alliance.
As a student who identifies as transgender herself, Shaw served on SGA her junior year where she spoke about this issue. After the topic was met with resistance, Shaw left SGA to become a “policy advocator instead.”
“I am very happy to say that both SGA Senate and SGA Exec were very welcoming to work with this year.” She said, “They were also very passionate about this issue.”
At the Town Hall meeting on Nov. 15, Denson explained the plan for gender neutral restrooms and housing accommodations in the upcoming academic year.
According to Denson, the first change to be made is the conversion of all single occupancy restrooms on campus to gender neutral spaces.
“All the signage will be updated and will be gender neutral,” Denson said. “And that is not just in the residence halls but in the academic buildings as well.”
The university’s Physical Plant has created a sign to be installed on the converted restrooms.
There is currently not a map for students to locate the single stall restrooms on campus, but Denson said this is something the university “can and will do before the end of the academic year.”
Shaw said she was very happy to see SGA and the university work together to increase inclusivity on campus.
“Throughout college, I have personally gone through the pain of feeling unwelcome in binary restrooms, and I have wanted to see solo gender-neutral bathrooms established on campus for years,” she said.
The second topic discussed was housing accommodations for transgender students. Denson explained this topic was slightly more complicated as every individual has a different request or desire as far as housing accommodations go.
Denson said the Housing Department works with students individually to accommodate their specific requests.
“We want all of our students to be comfortable on campus,” Denson said. “But we also need to know what space is available.”
Students looking for housing accommodations are encouraged to email the Housing Department. According to Denson, most of the time an agreement can be worked out between the department and students without students ever having to visit the department in person.
At the moment, there are no plans to expand gender neutral housing, but the department is hoping to have more options available to students in the future.
Denson emphasized ways the university aims to make campus life safer for LGBTQ+ students by informing students of Maxient, a system for filing Care Reports. Any student can use Maxient to file a report for themselves or for other students or faculty members concerning actions that make them or fellow students feel unsafe.
Denson assured students the university has a zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment and any care report filed will not put the student who filed it in jeopardy.
“If you file a Care Report, no one will see it who doesn’t need to,” Denson said.
In addition to restroom and housing accommodations, SGA is working on a way to give students the ability to change their names on the University’s service websites like Banner Self Service, Outlook and Canvas.
Cody Hodge, SGA President, suggested that students work with the registrar’s office to accomplish this.
Shaw said she is hopeful that LGBTQ+ students at UM will continue to be celebrated and welcomed, but it won’t happen without hard work.
“I hope my work in making needed change at UM will inspire more after I graduate to continue fighting for their voices,” she said.
Shaw said she could not have done any of this without her fellow officers and members.
Shaw worked with SGA to organize the Town Hall. She also wrote the questions that the student body representative asked during the event.
The topics discussed at Town Hall are part of a bill that has been tabled for vote at the next SGA meeting on Nov. 30.