The fight for gender-neutral bathrooms has been an ongoing struggle at Latin. On February 24, Dean of Community Learning Suzanne Callis sent an email communicating that the previously gendered bathrooms outside of US323 will become gender-neutral for the time being. “It is important that every community member have access to a restroom that affirms their identity and recognizes the varied physical and/or medical needs of those in our community,” she said in the email.
While many see the change as a step in the right direction, it is only temporary. The Illinois Plumbing code, section 890, appendix A, table B, last updated in 2014, states that in a secondary school such as Latin, one toilet is required per 40 male identifying people, and one toilet per 20 female identifying people. “We have a total of 22 toilets for girls, 32 for boys, including urinals, and 3 (plus one urinal) that don’t have sex assigned,” said Director of Operations Chanel King, not accounting for the recent switch. The Upper School currently has roughly 254 female reported students and 236 male students according to RomanNet’s numbers, and it could thus add in several gender-neutral single-use bathrooms with no worry about code violations.
Additionally, the state of Illinois passed a bill in 2019 declaring that “every single-occupancy restroom in a place of public accommodation or public building shall be identified as all-gender.”
The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) paired with Gender Spectrum to put out a pamphlet titled “Transgender Students and School Bathrooms,” which included a question and answer session with parents, content on the importance of making a school climate safe, and anonymous quotes from students, including one saying, “I’ve memorized both the locations of and fastest routes to the few gender-neutral bathrooms on campus because it’s the only way I can actually use the restroom.” This student emphasized the importance of a safe space in order for them to feel safe and at ease at school.
One of the many reasons that gender-neutral bathrooms are not as common is that to stay up to code, facilities must have a certain number of toilets per gender, which are more easily put together in multi-use gendered restrooms. Changing them to single-use, non-gendered toilets could threaten the sites’ ability to stay up to code.
However, with the Upper School’s current 50-percent capacity, the reduced numbers enable Latin to provide temporary gender-neutral toilets. All bathrooms are single-use now in order to encourage social distancing in all spaces. Therefore, turning a few into gender-neutral toilets did not bring up worries about violating state codes. But, when the school goes back in person at full capacity, the restrooms will return to the original gender they were assigned to. The only gender-neutral, single-use bathrooms will be the original two on the second floor and the one near the loggia.
Last year, junior Andrew Young constructed a hypothetical plan for gender-neutral, single-use bathrooms. He shared his reaction to the administration’s current plan. “I like how our makeshift gender-neutral bathrooms now in COVID-19 only allow one person to go in, and I think that I would wish for something similar once COVID-19 ends like more bathroom stalls,” he said. “Although I identify as cisgender male and am arguably not affected personally by male and female bathrooms, I value privacy a lot. I also have friends who identify as non-binary, and it would be great if the Latin School was a bit more welcoming for everyone.”
Prior to the temporary switches of the bathrooms near US323, there were three designated gender-neutral restrooms. Two are on the second floor, and the other is near the loggia. Currently, because of Lower School use, the second floor is off limits to Upper Schoolers, another attempt to encourage social distancing and avoid the spread of COVID-19. The other option, the loggia bathroom, is out of the way for students who do not have time to go all the way downstairs during 10-minute passing periods. A senior grade representative, Freddi Mitchell, said, “Even during the school year, a normal year, it’s really inconvenient to go to the ones on the second floor, because they are right by the administrative offices, and they are usually occupied.”
Since the Upper School building first opened in 1969, the political climate in the United States has continued to progress in its acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Companies, schools, and other organizations have sought to build more spaces for people to feel widely accepted. Latin’s Chief Financial Officer Michael Szczepanek, who plays a role in the financial aspect of implementing gender-neutral bathrooms, noted that Latin strives to make all students and faculty members feel as comfortable as possible in the space. “We have a history of changing the physical space to adjust to programmatic and social needs. Early this fall, we selected Perkins & Will to help construct a Facilities Master Plan. This process will identify what facility adjustments are needed for the short- and long-term benefit of the school and community,” he said. “Within the planning stages, we have already underlined the need for gender-neutral restrooms as a critical issue that must be addressed with any plan that is developed.”
Ms. Callis emphasized the importance of the issue as well as the measures the school is taking to make students feel comfortable, saying, “This is something that the school is committed to changing.”
Students and faculty have been fighting for gender-neutral bathrooms for many years. “These conversations pre-date me among the Senior Administration Team and other student advocates such as Ms. Callis,” said Ms. King. “I have been at Latin since July of 2019, and the conversations were already underway when I started.”
Upper School art teacher and co-advisor of the LGTBQ+ affinity for 29 years, Betty Lark Ross, recalled the beginning of the process to implement gender-neutral bathrooms. “Back in 2010 Latin’s MS/US nurse Kris Sabel asked Head of School Don Firke to change the men’s and women’s single-stall bathrooms on the second floor to gender-neutral bathrooms, and give permission use to students. Previously these were faculty and staff male and female bathrooms,” she said. The request was not granted, but students and faculty members greatly appreciated Ms. Sabel’s efforts.
Along with Ms. Ross and Ms. Sabel, students have advocated for implementing gender-neutral bathrooms in Latin. “[In the] Fall of 2015, some students approached the Upper School Administration requesting gender-neutral bathrooms. Two single-sex staff bathrooms on the second floor were repurposed as private bathrooms and made available for students as well as staff,” said Ms. Ross. “Excuses relating to building codes were offered for keeping the third and fourth-floor bathrooms ‘as is.’”
Junior Kazi Stanton-Thomas, who is head of the Identity Coalition for Latin (ICFL), has been raising this issue with the administration since their freshman year at Latin. “I would say that even though we get this ‘solution,’ it is still basically nothing; it is short term and still temporary,” they said. “There are still going to be trans people after I graduate who need bathrooms.”
Co-head of the LGBTQ+ affinity and senior Madison Seda spoke to the importance of having gender-neutral bathrooms more accessible to students. “The LGBTQ community feels uncomfortable in the bathrooms and the locker room,” they said. “I think something that we were just really hoping people would get is that [gender-neutral bathrooms] benefit everybody.”
Junior grade representative Naomi Altman and Freddi, senior representative, have been heading up this process from a student government standpoint. “I brought it up to [senior prefect] Tejas Vadali probably a few weeks ago, he brought it up to Ms. Callis, and she said she will take care of it,” said Naomi. “Freddi and I brought it up again to the whole student government. We all came to the consensus that it wasn’t happening quick enough.” Many Latin students have become dedicated to making the school an open and hospitable place, and their work has not gone unnoticed by the administration, as well as the community.
In the past few years, Latin has significantly increased the amount of students in the ninth grade class, and as a result, has more Upper School students than it had prior. In 2018, Latin brought in one of their biggest ninth grade classes ever, with 135 students. Since then, ninth grade classes have averaged 128 students. “We don’t have space. The school was built however many years ago, and when it was built, it was built with a certain number of bathrooms in order to fulfill the requirements of the city,” said Naomi. Since the school was built, Latin has added more bathrooms in order to meet the codes. As of now, the school has the bathrooms it needs to meet the state codes. “There is no space for us to suddenly create more bathrooms,” said Ms. Callis. “We can’t easily eliminate multi-user bathrooms because it puts us at risk of not meeting our code.”
The administrative staff has made it clear that they are working tirelessly to make the school a warm and welcoming place for everybody. “It is a priority of the school to create these spaces,” said Ms. Callis. Naomi agreed with the importance of the matter, saying, “I am very passionate about this issue because I know it affects a lot of people.”
This story was originally published on The Forum on March 1, 2021.