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May 11, 2021

New Committee Charged with Increasing Access to All-Gender Restrooms

By Bruce Gerson

Finding a suitable restroom to use isn’t as easy as you’d think for many members of the Carnegie Mellon University community. A new task force is working to change that.

Provost Jim Garrett and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Gina Casalegno have established the All-Gender Restroom Access Committee and charged its members to better address the needs of CMU’s trans, intersex and nonbinary community.

In their charge, Garrett and Casalegno said the committee’s work should be guided by the university’s foundational values, including diversity, inclusion, integrity, empathy and respect for the dignity of every member of the CMU community.

“Members of our community and visitors to our campus should have access to safe restroom facilities that are configured and located in such a manner that no one has to be late for class, meetings or campus events, or to walk long distances across campus to find a restroom,” they said. 

The 14-member committee comprises representatives from the Trans, Intersex and Nonbinary Alliance (TINA), Campus Design and Facilities Development (CDFD), Facilities Management and Campus Services (FMCS), Student Affairs and the Office of Title IX Initiatives.

Co-chaired by Daryl Weinert, chief of staff and vice president for strategic initiatives, and Holly Hippensteel, associate vice president for community standards and diversity initiatives, the All-Gender Restroom Access Committee will focus on four primary areas: existing infrastructure; renovation projects; new construction; and advocacy and communications.

“We are committed to ensuring success for our trans, intersex and nonbinary community." — Daryl Weinert

Hippensteel said the committee’s work is a priority amid the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative. While other groups, including TINA and Staff Council, have worked to raise awareness and address concerns from the community, Hippensteel said it was time to pull together a committee that included individuals who have the authority and power to act on broader systemic changes alongside community members willing to share their personal experiences to better inform planning and implementation.

“We are committed to ensuring success for our trans, intersex and nonbinary community," Weinert said.

The committee co-chairs said they’ve been personally moved by stories of what people have to go through just to find an accessible restroom that feels safe to use. Current single-stall, all-gender restrooms are often not easy to find and the privacy they afford means they are widely used and therefore often unavailable to people who most need them.

Hippensteel was reminded of a powerful scene in the movie “Hidden Figures,” in which actress Taraji Henson tells her boss, Kevin Costner, it takes her 40 minutes to walk a half-mile to use a restroom for Black women.

“There are currently not enough all-gender restrooms,” she said, “and what we do have are not well distributed across campus, and some are behind locked doors requiring card access.”

Changes have been a long time coming.

“There are people who have been working for many years for some of these changes to come about,” Hippensteel said.

One of those people is committee member Nica Ross, an assistant teaching professor in video media design for the School of Drama. A member of TINA, Ross has been a champion for all-gender restrooms since joining the university five years ago, and has been a part of several efforts that didn’t gain traction. Those efforts included the formation of an LGBTQ+ Task Force that developed a LGBTQIA+ strategic plan in 2016, which included all-gender restroom implementation. That same year Undergraduate Student Senate passed a resolution calling for more all-gender restrooms, and in 2018 working groups were established by the newly created Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion to increase access to all-gender restrooms.  

“Though I started [the work] in 2016, these issues did not start then,” Ross said. “But somehow I felt completely alone in my search for a restroom that didn’t make me late to every meeting.”

In 2019, their continued advocacy led to the formation of a restroom access committee, but it stalled because of the lack of resources to address the need for plumbing code changes at the county level.

“TINA has allowed for our collective needs to be articulated through a unified voice.” — Nica Ross

Ross credits TINA for the current progress.

“Through the work of many incredible community members we united our voices and made our needs clear to the university,” they said. “TINA has allowed for our collective needs to be articulated through a unified voice.”

TINA member Ariel Uy, a senior in CMU’s Science and Humanities Scholar Program, is a member of the new All-Gender Restroom Access Committee. Uy spoke about the difficulty finding enough all-gender restrooms to use.

“It has had a negative impact on my college experience,” they said. “It makes me feel like I do not have equal access to campus.”

The work of the committee is already informing renovation and new construction projects across campus as well as the university-wide signage initiative. It also recently received the results of a comprehensive restroom audit conducted by FMCS, CDFD and campus building managers in order to update restroom locations on the official campus map and recommend renovation priorities. There are approximately 70 all-gender facilities currently on campus.

“The current committee seems to have the right people on it, people who are willing to take action and who are in a position to do so,” Uy said. “One example of success is the documentation of the all-gender restrooms around campus, which now has more restrooms and more information about them.”

“The current committee seems to have the right people on it, people who are willing to take action and who are in a position to do so.” — Ariel Uy

An important part of the committee’s efforts will be advocating for the reform of commercial plumbing codes for fixtures and signage, an effort that is already being pursued locally in Allegheny County and Pennsylvania, as well as nationally and internationally. Single-stall all-gender restrooms currently do not count toward the total number of sinks, toilets and other bathroom fixtures required depending on a building’s size and occupancy. New plumbing codes will allow for more flexibility to institute changes and increase access.

“This committee is empowered to advocate at the county level, make decisions that cost money like building a multi-stall all-gender restroom in Wean Hall, and it includes many members of the trans, intersex and nonbinary community whose voices and experiences are respected,” Ross said. “The county code hasn’t changed yet, but we are working on it.”

Weinert agreed.

“The progress we’re going to make is going to require a cultural shift for our society. We have a lot of work to do,” he said.