By GEOFFREY BILLETER
While results of a campus-wide survey about inclusive restrooms show support for the reinvigorated push for gender neutral restrooms on campus, a strained budget could stymie the effort.
“Near the end of Fall 2016, faculty council drafted a document that asked the college to move towards increasing the number of inclusive restrooms on campus,” said Vice president Armen Sarrafian.
The move made by faculty council, a governing body elected by the faculty, hopes to “foster an environment of social justice and equality,” Sarrafian said.
Access to restrooms, changing and showering facilities for transgender and gender non-binary people have been hotly debated in the United States, leading many different states and schools to conflicting decisions. Sarrafian hopes adding more inclusive restrooms will create a positive impact on campus.
While the idea to have more gender neutral restrooms at Harold Washington had been percolating since 2015 for some faculty members, the resolution from faculty council and a survey conducted in May were the crucial first steps to making the restrooms a reality.
“We had 887 people across the whole college that responded. In the broad stroke, about 73% of the people thought we should have more inclusive restrooms on campus,” said Sarrafian, referring to the 2017 survey.
The high rate of approval shows that the impact to student life is seen as a positive change, but Sarrafian also spoke about the challenge of changing the college culture of bathroom use.
“When the survey results come out, you’ll see a lot of people were interested, but we have to represent the interest of the college as a whole,” added Sarrafian, referring to the respondents who did not support going forward with gender neutral restrooms for the college.
“In this budget environment right now it would be a real challenge, even if we had the money, to maintain compliance with city codes,” said Sarrafian. “What we are looking to do may not need a facility change, versus a repurposing. The concept of repurposing an existing restroom is far less expensive and may be more in line with what we are trying to do.”
There is currently one gender neutral restroom tucked away in the library. But many are unaware of the facility which isn’t as easily accessible as other restrooms.
Asking for assistance to use the library’s gender neutral restroom is something that transgender and gender non-binary students likely don’t want to do each time they need to use a restroom on campus. This, along with hesitation from some, and the cost, makes it unclear exactly what an inclusive restroom would look like at Harold Washington.
Though exact details are uncertain, conviction amongst faculty to see more inclusive restrooms on campus has remained strong.
Professor Joe Hinton’s motivation for bringing inclusive restrooms to Harold Washington came from a 2015 Pride Alliance trip to Illinois State University.
“Illinois State University has taken a proactive stance on converting restrooms to gender-inclusive to be inclusive and to protect the dignity of all as they select a restroom,” Hinton wrote in an email.
“It has taken us a little longer here at Harold Washington College to come to an agreement on how we will approach this effort,” Hinton said.
He noted that the primary concern of those not in favor of incorporating inclusive restrooms on campus was the question of prioritizing restroom renovation in a lean financial environment.
“I think many people prefer single-occupancy restrooms as the standard for gender inclusivity, but these tend to be more expensive and would require space that we don’t have,” Hinton said. “But I feel as if the energy and organization are there for us to make a transition to more gender-inclusive restroom options for Fall 2018 semester.”
Neither Sarrafian, nor Hinton recall there being an issue with a student or faculty member self-selecting a restroom. This begs the question of the necessity of rehauling or adding facilities versus simply having an inclusive policy where all can select a restroom which represents their gender identity.
The results of the spring survey may shed more light on the way administration will proceed.
“Keep an eye out for the survey results. I would be optimistic that in the Spring semester there will be some more open sharing on the changes to come. I think we should be able to get those survey results in the next month,” Sarrafian said.
But the vice president also mentioned that a final decision on what will happen has not been made.
Still, Harold Washington and City Colleges of Chicago remain firm in their commitment of fostering an inclusive environment and believe more gender neutral restrooms are the way to go.
"City Colleges of Chicago is committed to providing an inclusive and non-discriminatory environment for its students, faculty and staff, which is why there’s a plan in place to have single-user bathrooms available at all City Colleges,” said Mike Emerson, CCC’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services.
“[Single-user] bathrooms are already in place at several City Colleges — Harold Washington, Truman, Malcolm X, Wright — and are planned to be in place by or before Fall 2019 at the remaining colleges, Daley College, Kennedy-King, Olive-Harvey,” Emerson said.