The Obama administration took a huge step forward in the fight for the rights of transgender students when they published their guidelines for restroom usage in schools this week. It is an important step that has generated all the controversy one would expect, given the history of the fight for civil rights in America.
And perhaps this is a chance to use school design to rethink how school structures one of the basic structures of school – the restroom.
To wit – what if all restrooms were unisex?
I was in a great Philadelphia restaurant recently that had unisex restrooms. There was no door from the main restaurant into bathroom. The sinks were around the corner as you walked in, and the sinks were open to all. The stalls were in the back half of the space and had floor-to-ceiling doors – creating a private experience for the person actually, you know, going to the bathroom. I admit, it was a little strange for a second to come out of my stall at the same time as a woman two stalls down, but only for a second. And I think that would be the experience for most kids in school as well.
Any school with this design could completely short-circuit the issue of “which bathroom.” It would ensure that no transgender student ever had to face harassment or bigotry based on which bathroom they chose to use. It wouldn’t mean that the issues transgender student face would end – far from it – but it could make life a little easier for students as schools and society continue to evolve. And it would give schools one more entry point to the necessary conversation about civil rights for transgender students.
And the thing is – this might allow us to get bathrooms right for all kids, too. Bathrooms are – in many schools – places that often end up as less than awesome. Most recently, a young woman lost her life in a bathroom fight in Delaware. But school bathrooms have been terrifying places in too many places for a long, long time. Maybe, with new designs that made less of the space walled off, we could create safer spaces for all our students.
We need to do the work of creating more safe, more inclusive, more accepting and more understanding schools. Much of that work has to be done through the words and deeds with which we live our lives. But as we seek to make schools — and society — more equitable, let’s remember that there are ways to improve the design of the very spaces we inhabit that could have profoundly positive impact as we work to achieve those goals.