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Friday, March 04, 2016

Going Gender-Neutral

Written by  Nick Owens

Of locker rooms, toilets, sex, & gender

Facility issues among the LGBT population have been present over a long period of time and continue to be a struggle today. Whether it be the availability of restrooms or in the case of fitness centers, locker rooms, it is not always an inviting environment. A recent article chronicling the addition of a gender-neutral locker room at Utah State University detailed a student’s experience as a transman and how he worried who might see him and how they may be uncomfortable, ultimately making it uncomfortable for the individual. Additionally, the student described how the creation of a gender-neutral space eliminated his concern of getting in trouble for being in the space he was most comfortable in. This exemplifies the ongoing challenges of facility utilization by the LGBT population.

A great resource for the location of gender-neutral restrooms is a recent app called “Refuge,” which gives the user a list of all gender neutral facilities in the immediate area. This makes the identification of gender-neutral spaces easier to locate in any given area. While an excellent resource, it is still in its early stages of development requiring much more integration of additional spaces that currently exist into its platform so users can see a more robust list of available facilities.

More specifically, we turn to facilities of the fitness industry. Physical activity is an important part of developing healthy and holistic individuals through healthy weight control, prevention/reduction of health conditions, increase of energy, and several other factors. With that in mind, the prospect of stepping outside into the cold winter months with nothing on but your lightweight gym clothes stops many people in their tracks or curled up under a blanket on their couch. One needs to look no further than their local fitness/recreation center to keep their physical activity levels. When talking about the use of public facilities though, not all spaces are created equal.

Over the last decade, a large shift in facility trends has become present moving to more inclusive facilities. Often called “gender-neutral restroom,” “all-gender restroom,” or “family changing room,” these spaces offer a more inviting space generally outfitted with a full bathroom and sometimes even lockers. Additionally, that can be lockable to accommodate a single occupant or open to multiple occupants. In the Baltimore area, several colleges and universities have responded to this need for gender-neutral facilities on their campus. For instance, Loyola University Maryland has offered “All-Gender Restrooms” in their Fitness & Aquatic Center that boasts showers, lockers, and restroom facilities that are conveniently located right next to the pool. The University of Maryland, Baltimore, also offers a unisex locker room that also offers showers, lockers, and restrooms available to all patrons. Towson University has a number of gender-neutral restrooms on their campus to accommodate their student population and campus community members.

In looking at the renovation of existing spaces to match current trends, there can be challenges of varying sorts that make an endeavor like creating a gender-neutral facility difficult. At the University of Baltimore, there are gender-neutral restrooms in most buildings on campus including the Student Center which has two single stall bathrooms in its lower level. The Recreation Center offers both regular and faculty/staff locker rooms for both men and women as well as a gender-neutral restroom in its Competitive Sports office. In trying to keep up with current trends, a request has been submitted to renovate what is currently a sauna and storage space in the facility. This space would be transformed into a gender neutral locker room that would house a shower stall, lockers, and restroom facilities that would be open to all patrons.

A space renovation such as this requires a number of changes to both physical space as well as infrastructure including development of floor plans and rendering of designs, new plumbing and electrical systems, tearing down walls, and purchasing of new fixtures and equipment to get started. These can all quickly add up and derail a project. An unfortunate roadblock to the project is renovation costs which have been unable to be supported by the Recreation Center itself as well as campus facility operations. With the recent creation of a transgender issues workgroup on campus being led by Shelia Burkhalter, vice president of student affairs at University of Baltimore, there will hopefully be some traction gained in this effort to create gender neutral spaces across campus providing facilities to be utilized by all individuals.

The trend in facility creation and/or renovation to make more gender neutral facilities will continue to unfold and it is no more evident than in larger cities such as Baltimore. Even within these areas though, a greater need for more gender neutral facilities is needed to complement gender-specific areas or in some cases eliminate gender-specific facilities all together.

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