.New Legislation Would Provide Nonbinary Bathrooms in California Schools

Santa Cruz is ‘miles ahead’ of the state curve in providing gender-neutral restrooms in K-12 schools

The first gender-neutral restroom I saw was in Santa Cruz in the early ’90s at the Saturn Cafe. Painted in bright, psychedelic letters on the two bathroom doors was one word: “Humans.” 

Walking into the bathroom, I felt like Alice going through the looking glass into the wonderland that awaits when one starts questioning social constructs. For the first time, I paused to consider a broader definition of gender beyond the binary of woman and man. The revelation, like Saturn’s tomato soup, blew my teenage mind. I didn’t know any people openly identifying as transgender—yet. At that moment, I couldn’t envision the reality of gender-neutral restrooms in my school. 

STUDENT-LED MOVEMENT

Nearly 30 years after my first encounter with a nonbinary bathroom, teens are working to bring all-gender restrooms to every K-12 school in the state. 

A group of students, educators and lawmakers—The Safe Bathrooms Ad Hoc Committee—collaborated to create SB 760, a bill that would direct all public schools to provide gender-neutral restrooms by 2025. Under existing law, schools must provide fully functional bathrooms during school hours, and students have the right to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identification. 

The committee and bill were “initiated by students’ voices,” says Ben Kennedy, a trans UCSD graduate student and participant. Kennedy, a Ph.D. student in education policy, says, “Senate Bill 760 is the first bill in California to be fully researched and written by students.” 

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In October 2021, State Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond held a forum for LGBTQ+ History Month. Multiple students shared feeling unsafe at school, which included the lack of access to inclusive restrooms. Students told stories of bullying and harassment when trying to use gendered restrooms, saying they often avoided using the bathroom, sometimes all day.

After listening to LGBTQ+ students at the forum, the Department of Education assembled the Ad Hoc Committee, giving the care to select students from diverse backgrounds, says committee participant Josh Dineros, a BA candidate in politics at SFU and former intern in Thurmond’s office.

Participating students, ranging from high school to higher-ed, shared lived experiences, identified student needs and worked through logistics, says Dineros. 

Kennedy and Dineros expressed that this bill is about inclusivity, with every student equally safe to access the facilities in their schools. 

“You don’t need to understand the nuance of a person’s social identity to recognize that they deserve equal access, respect and safety,” Kennedy says.

Dineros says that as an LGBTQ+-identified person, his teenage self would have benefitted from this option. People don’t realize “how being able to use the restroom isn’t just about the time in the restroom. This positively affects [the rest of their day] as they won’t be preoccupied with ‘I have to pee.’” 

Co-sponsors of the bill point to data that indicates LGBTQ+ and non-binary students actively avoid using gender-segregated restrooms because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable doing so. This can lead to emotional stress and medical issues like dehydration and urinary tract infections, leading to more absences and truancy when the student misses school to deal with health concerns.

SANTA CRUZ STATUS

Ron Indra, director of the Safe Schools Project of Santa Cruz County, hadn’t heard of SB 760, but he leads the forces helping area schools achieve the same ends here in Santa Cruz. 

Gender-neutral restrooms are necessary, says Indra, because not all gender-nonconforming or questioning students are out. When a transgender or nonbinary student needs to ask someone or go into staff areas to access a safe restroom, “they are outing themselves.” 

Indra, a former teacher and current LGBTQ+ student liaison for the County Office of Education, developed a program for the Safe Schools Project, itself a part of the Queer Youth Task Force of Santa Cruz County, to help schools create gender-neutral restrooms. As far as he knows, the program is the only one of its kind in the state and includes in-service training explaining the needs of transgender students.  

“Teachers want to do the right thing,” he says, “but often don’t know how.”

He says Santa Cruz is “miles ahead” of the State curve in providing all-gender restrooms in schools, thanks to partnerships between The Safe Schools Project, receptive districts, the County Office Of Education and the Superintendent of Schools.

Over half, if not three-quarters, of public schools in the county, have already implemented gender-neutral restrooms, Indra says. UCSC provides a list of over twenty all-gender bathrooms all over campus. 

While private schools would not be obligated to follow the law if it passes, Indra has already assisted several that have approached him.

IMPLEMENTATION 

Often, creating compliant restrooms is a matter of changing use in existing facilities. 

Implementation might only be a matter of changing signage and educating students. Allowing schools to repurpose existing restrooms will make this legislation cost-effective, says Newman, anticipating that opposition will use costliness as an argument against the bill. 

“The measure intends to direct school districts to provide bathrooms that are easily accessible, that doesn’t require a key, that doesn’t require someone to identify themselves as in need of a non-gender specific bathroom,” says Newman.  

The hope, Newman says, is that implementation will not entail significant expense to cash-strapped districts and can be easily integrated into the current system. Individual schools are free to convert single- or multiple-stall restrooms, as the bill doesn’t mandate new construction of bathrooms. 

The bill, facing its first review hearing this upcoming week, hasn’t faced much opposition, Newman says. He is aware of detractors “invested in the culture wars” who are part of a broader movement, but he insists that this is about access. 

Some opponents, says Indra, change their thinking with education. While some have the knee-jerk reaction that “straight guys are going into the bathroom to see girls,” he points out that Los Angeles has been implementing all-gender restrooms for a decade. Most often, the faculty, staff and students are on board to make these changes, and parents or people in the community object. 

Not only gender nonconforming students would benefit from one-stall, gender-neutral restrooms, Indra also points out. Students with disabilities, medical issues and after-school jobs with uniforms all need privacy. 


LOOKING FORWARD—AND BACKWARD

Unlike my teenage self, my own kids and their friends see gender-neutral restrooms as usual. 

Two teens in my unscientific sample, attending two different high schools in two districts within San Jose, say their schools already have one or more all-gender restrooms. Both high schools have repurposed multi-stall rooms. My elementary-age child’s school only has one in the nurse’s office. 

Don Lane, an original owner of the Saturn Cafe, doesn’t know if the restaurant was the first public space in Santa Cruz to have all-gender restrooms. The restaurant had fun painting different names on the doors, including “Yes” and “No,” or “Us” and “Them.” Because of their “feminist ethos” and primarily female staff, many interpreted “Us” to mean “Women” and “Them” to mean men, even though that wasn’t the case, laughs Lane.

According to Lane, Saturn, a queer-friendly place, continued the tradition under new ownership, including at their next location on Laurel and Pacific, which featured all-gender, multi-stall restrooms. Lane, who went on to a long career in local politics, thinks SB 760 is good policy. 

“My grandchild is non-binary, so they don’t particularly identify as male or female,” Lane says. “Having a neutral choice gives them an easier, clearer option.”

1 COMMENT

  1. We are going to look back in our history books and say what idiots these people were to conform to this trans agenda. Commiefornia will be it’s own demise.

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