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Anti-harassment effort focuses on restrooms

Gender-neutral week questions stereotypes

When students at a Vancouver, Wash., university campus visit the restroom this week, they’ll be thinking about gender roles.

At least that’s the hope of the organizers of the first Gender-Neutral Bathroom Week at Washington State University Vancouver.

All this week, 14 of the about 50 restrooms on campus will be open to all who need a potty break, no matter what sex they are or appear to be.

The weeklong campaign is the brainchild of two sociology students, Meredith Williams and Janae Teal.

Since the two came to Vancouver from WSU’s Pullman campus last year, Teal said she’s been getting harassed in campus bathrooms more often than she was used to at her old campus.

Teal has short hair, likes wearing ball caps and has a ring piercing her bottom lip.

She said she’s heard comments such as “I think there’s a guy in the bathroom” or “I think that’s one of those transgender people,” while she’s in a stall in easy listening distance.

Last fall, Teal organized a showing of a film on gender diversity, in part to remind people that not everyone looks stereotypically masculine or feminine, she said.

“After that, the stories started coming out of the woodwork,” Teal said.

About 50 students have come up to her in the months since to share stories of getting harassed in bathrooms for not looking gender-typical, Teal said.

The surprising part for Teal was how many of them were heterosexual.

A married mother of two who likes to wear her hair in a buzz cut told her about getting snide comments in the ladies’ room. A man with long hair said male students asked him if he should be in the women’s restroom.

Teal and Williams started a campaign using a $600 grant from the campus diversity council. They showed a series of documentaries on gender issues. They built a website. And they initiated the gender-neutral restroom week.

The two students’ aim isn’t to have more such restrooms built on campus. That would just allow those subjected to the harassment to hide, they say.

The two want to make people think about preconceived notions of gender.

“People are getting the wrong impression of this event,” Teal said.

“We’re not trying to change their identity,” Williams said. “We’re not trying to change gender roles. We just don’t want you to harass someone in the restroom because they look different.”

Following the experiment, students will be invited to a meeting to exchange views on how it went.


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