The University is adding multi-stall, all-gender bathrooms for future buildings on campus, but student groups are still advocating for renovations to existing buildings that are popular among community members.
University Architect Mark Kocent said that Penn has recently installed all-gender bathrooms in the Biotech Commons, which was formerly the Biomedical Library, and is nearing the completion of bathroom renovations in Houston Hall. More long-term plans for all-gender bathrooms include a $200 million Quad renovation project, and a year-long project to renovate Stouffer College House — which will close in summer 2022 and reopen in fall 2023.
While Kocent said he is unable to give a current number of campus buildings containing all-gender bathrooms, LGBT Center Director Erin Cross said less than 50% of buildings have them. Penn had 89 all-gender bathrooms as of January 2020.
“The pace of the University changes are much slower than the lifetime of students,” Penn Association for Gender Equity Chair and College senior Sam Pancoe said. “It's happening. It's not happening at a pace as quickly as we would like it to. But things are moving.”
Beyond these renovations, some student groups have called on University administration to increase the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus in order to ensure the health and safety of current non-cis students.
Last week, representatives of Lambda Alliance and PAGE presented results of an anonymous survey about non-cisgender students’ opinions and experiences with bathrooms to top administrators, including Penn President Amy Gutmann. Lambda Alliance Chair and College senior Blake Rubenstein said the administrators seemed receptive to students' concerns.
According to Pancoe, the survey contained quotes about non-cis students’ struggles to plan their day around accessible bathrooms, as well as which buildings still need all-gender bathrooms — such as Fisher-Bennett Hall, Williams Hall, and 1920 Commons.
“I think the most impactful quotes centered around the fact that non-cis students are basically dehydrating themselves during the day, or holding their bladder for extended periods of time because there are only so many gender-neutral bathrooms on campus,” Pancoe said.
College senior and Penn Non-Cis Co-Chair Claire Medina said their biggest priority is to adding all-gender bathrooms to Fisher-Bennett Hall. The building houses the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department but has no all-gender bathrooms. They added that residential buildings, like the Quad, should also have all-gender bathrooms, because the current bathrooms are organized in a communal rather than suite-style.
When Medina was living in the Quad during their first year, they said the bathrooms were originally designated as men’s and women’s only — which made them uncomfortable as a nonbinary student. While their resident advisor offered to convert the men’s bathrooms to become gender-neutral, they said that it was “not really solving the problem.”
It is easier to incorporate all-gender bathrooms into plans for new buildings due to space constraints in older layouts, Kocent said. In order to convert existing gendered bathrooms, Kocent said it is necessary to create private stalls with robust partitions. These private stalls can lead to plumbing code issues, adding they also require additional lighting and airflow.
“All of a sudden, what works for the general room, you might have four times the cost in lighting and plumbing, and so the cost gets much more expensive," Kocent said. "So the schools have been very responsive, very receptive to doing it. It just doesn't work everywhere."
He added that in some cases, only single-stall all-gender additions can be incorporated into older buildings, since it is sometimes not physically feasible to convert bathrooms in older buildings into multi-stall, all-gender bathrooms.
Medina, however, said single-stall all-gender bathrooms can cause further issues, because that stall is often both the family bathrooms, and the only accessible option for non-cis people in a building.
Forcing people to choose between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they identify as by using gendered bathrooms leads to different levels of harassment, Medina added.
“Asking people to make that choice is asking you to pick what manner of unsafe behavior you're okay with, and what manner of harassment you're okay with,” Medina said. “I'm nonbinary. But if I use the women's bathrooms, it's legitimizing everyone who thinks that it doesn't matter, or it's not a big deal, or like I’m just being pissy."
Medina, Pancoe, and Rubenstein said that non-cis students being forced to "out" themselves is another danger resulting from the lack of all-gender bathrooms.
"A lot of the time when there aren't these bathrooms, it can be very detrimental to people's self-worth, self-respect," Rubenstein said. "It can 'out' individuals who are trans or gender nonbinary by using a bathroom that may or may not match to their gender."
Because many campus buildings do not have all-gender bathrooms, Pancoe said non-cis students are not able to participate in the same activities as cisgender students. Cross said she has spoken with students who plan their class schedules around the availability of all-gender bathrooms. Non-cis faculty members also face the same issue, she added.
Student groups have been calling for all-gender bathrooms for several years. The Student Committee on Undergraduate Education released a White Paper this year that called for more all-gender bathrooms.
Aidan Young, SCUE's Chair External and Engineering senior, said the group's recommendation was for 30% of all Penn bathrooms to be all-gender by 2025, which was determined after speaking with students through surveys and focus groups.
“I think the goal of the University should be to make everybody feel welcome, in every part of the campus and every building,” Young said. “It's important that you make sure that whatever you can do to help students feel comfortable and feel that they're in a safe place is important.”
Kocent said he’s currently working with the Division of Public Safety to address two challenges that students and faculty have mentioned in surveys — minimizing the gap between doors in individual stalls to ensure privacy and fitting the maximum amount of bathrooms possible into a space.
Other upcoming projects that will contain all-gender bathrooms include Amy Gutmann Hall, the new Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, and a project that will connect the Graduate School of Education with Stiteler Hall, all of which are scheduled to be completed in the next two years, he said.
The McNeil Building renovations — which included multi-stall all-gender bathrooms — have been particularly exciting, Rubenstein said.
"There definitely has been an increase in numbers, and each time it makes me so excited to see it," Rubenstein said. "Penn is adding multi-stall all-gender bathrooms to new buildings on campus, so trying to increase the number in current buildings on campus is where we're heading."