North Carolina Bathroom Law Illuminates Transgender Access

Schools also face issues of inclusivity in housing

North Carolina’s new law restricting bathroom access for transgender people to restrooms that match their sex at birth has ignited a national furor that’s also reverberating on college campuses.

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state, saying the law violates the civil rights of transgender people, while state officials have filed suits accusing federal officials of overreaching. The DOJ also maintains that North Carolina’s law is in violation of Title IX, the Education Acts Amendment of 1972 that bans gender discrimination in education.

This is a huge deal for colleges and universities, and it goes far beyond access to bathrooms. Title IX also protects transgender students' right to live in housing that reflects their gender identity, and schools that don’t provide adequate housing to transgender students could face lawsuits or the loss of federal funding tied to Title IX compliance.

The issue of Title IX compliance and housing is likely to “explode,” given the spotlight that the North Carolina law has now brought to the issue of transgender access, not only to bathrooms but to housing, says Renee Wells, director of the GLBT Center at NC State University. The DOJ and the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter in May to schools reiterating Title IX regulations.

To date, about 205 universities and colleges offer gender inclusive housing, meaning housing in which students can have roommates of any gender, states Campus Pride, a national nonprofit that works to create a “safer college environment for LGBTQ students,” its website says.

The idea of a “safer college” environment for all students is a good one. As architects and designers, safety and inclusivity is always at the top of our minds. First off, we view campus spaces holistically. We know they must meet the needs of institutions, students, faculty and even the local community. We also know that students who feel safe, and connected to each other, as well as to their higher education communities, will most likely be more successful in their educational pursuits. Spaces, how they look, feel and flow, can aid that connectivity—or be a barrier to it.

Wells has spent years working on equal access issues for the LGBT community. I spoke with her about the impact of North Carolina’s law so far, inclusivity on campus and challenges facing transgender students. Here are several edited pieces of that interview that I think all of us in the higher education facility management planning or design should consider.

Q: Explain to me how you see this issue over transgender access to bathrooms?

A: Well, the bottom line is that having single occupancy non-gendered spaces is really important for transgender students for two reasons: the first is that given the current climate some transgender students feel safer in single-occupancy non-gendered spaces because there is no assumption about the gender of the person using the space and no one else in the space to question a student's right to be there; the second is that many students identify as non-binary, which means they don't identify as male or female, so non-gendered spaces are the only ones that matches with their identity. Otherwise, they’re forced to go into a space that is gendered in a way that they don’t feel they are gendered. You have to make sure you have three options, a female-gendered space, a male-gendered space and a single occupancy, non-gendered space available in many locations, and make sure that people can access whatever space they feel comfortable in.

Q: Have there been any immediate impacts of the new North Carolina law on your campus?

A: After it was passed, our center became the central location for people looking for a list of single occupancy restrooms on campus. No one had a good updated list. So, over the summer, we had student employees go to every bathroom on campus and put together a database of spaces, whether they are single occupancy, how they’re labeled or if they’re gendered. We also found single occupancy bathrooms where exterior doors don’t lock, and we looked at how far people have to walk to get to bathrooms. We’re now meeting with university architects on ways to make these spaces better. In some cases, we’re replacing gendered ones and making them non-gendered. We’re also placing locks on doors in a few places where that is the only update needed. The next step will be looking at access and areas of campus that may not have enough.

Q: So what do you see as the biggest challenges for GLBT students on campus?

A: A lot of it intersects with trans identity. For example, North Carolina’s new law has called a lot of attention to bathroom accessibility. However, another issue is that the UNC system (which includes NC State University and 16 other campuses) requires schools to house students on campus in accordance with their sex assigned at birth. That means we can’t have transgender students in rooms that match their gender identity, which is very problematic and very out of line with federal guidelines.

Q: What does the federal Title IX say schools have to offer in terms of inclusive housing?

A: The law isn’t specific regarding facilities in terms of design. It says you can’t discriminate based on sex or gender. So, if a student identifies as female, but their sex at birth was male, you can’t force them to live in a room labeled for male students. You have to let them live in a room for female students. Another piece of this is that there are students who don’t identify as male or female, so how do you create housing options for them? The law also prohibits schools from forcing transgender students to live by themselves. Ideally, the students will have the same range of housing options that other students have.

Q: How do you think North Carolina’s bathroom law will affect this question of inclusive housing and Title IX compliance?

A: Ironically, the North Carolina law has brought this to the level of a national conversation. It has made all the states pay attention to the fact that they have to get on board with this. Title IX says we all should do this, but it has not really been enforced around this issue before.

Q: Will this mean that schools will face tons of residential hall renovations to be in compliance?

A: Not exactly. The real renovations will come around the bathroom and locker room changes. For residence halls, it’s more a question of schools changing their housing policies.

Q: What do you think about these “bathrooms of the future” with a section with sinks and then separate single occupancy rooms for the toilet?

A: They are awesome. At some schools, there are already restrooms with a series of individual stalls with not quite floor to ceiling doors, or maybe the door goes all the way to the floor, so users are in a private space and you can’t tell the gender of the person inside. A lot of people say that is an ideal design because it also eliminates the issue of having long lines at the women’s restrooms.


This post was written with contributions from Jamey Glueck, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

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