By Marian O’Connor

Have you ever been afraid to use a bathroom?

For most of us, the question has never crossed our minds. When nature calls, most of us don’t take the time to deliberate which door to go through.

But when gender isn’t so clear-cut, the lines blur and controversy begins to brew.

In Lucy’s case, the bathroom door wasn’t necessarily the issue. It was the reaction of the people standing outside the bathroom that created the negative scene—one that quickly elevated. Lucy, a transgendered female and Santa Cruz resident, was walking out of a bathroom at the Catalyst nightclub when a drunken man accosted her.

Lucy thinks it might have her height that made her stand out, or perhaps her large hands, but whatever the reason, after leaving the ladies room the man started screaming in her face, “You’re a man! You’re a man!”

The scene quickly escalated when Lucy confronted the man about his comments. The man’s girlfriend had to pull him away, as she apologized to Lucy and dragged him out of the nightclub. The staff at the Catalyst did nothing. In fact, they told Lucy, “You can go outside and call a cop, but you can’t use our phone.”

In 2001, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission conducted a survey regarding attitudes toward gender-neutral bathrooms. The survey was distributed at many queer and transgender meetings, restaurants and hot-spots in the Castro, and e-mailed to 12 lists of transgender, lesbian, and progressive groups throughout the city. Out of 487 people that responded to this survey, almost every one of participants agreed that there was a need for gender-neutral bathrooms of some form. The survey asserted that public bathrooms should be a stress-free privilege for all people, and that many transgendered people had been harassed in some way over the bathrooms they chose to use.

John, a transgender from the Santa Cruz area, explained that many people are embarrassed to use the bathroom of the opposite gender.

“You don’t go in the women’s bathroom if you aren’t a woman, and you don’t go in the men’s bathroom if you aren’t a man,” John said. “It is some rule that was made up at some point in history, and now it’s turned into this rigid structure.”

John also pointed out that many countries use unisex bathrooms that both men and women can use simultaneously.

“[Men’s and women’s] bathrooms are a cultural concept. In other countries it doesn’t matter who uses what bathroom, because they’re all using it for the same purpose,” John said.

Laurel, a 15-year-old transgender student at Santa Cruz High and president of the Rainbow Alliance, feels awkward using both the men’s or the women’s bathroom.

“I think that part of it is the cultural convention [of bathrooms],” Laurel said. “For me, I have the attitude going in that people might have a problem with my using that bathroom.”

Laurel, however, is in a very unique place. He is the only publically transgendered person at Santa Cruz High, and feels obligated to educate people about the issues that arise in the transgender community.

Laurel believes that part of the reason why people are fearful of the transgender community is because they are uneducated.

“The more people know, the more tolerant they can be,” Laurel said.

He also believes that one of the reasons many people are uneducated is because they have never been exposed to transgender people before.

Last summer, when Laurel was in Nicaragua, he found out that gender and bathroom politics exist outside the United States, as well.

“I was going to use the women’s bathroom because I thought it would be more acceptable if I did,” Laurel said. “But after I went in I was forcibly pulled out of it and forced to use the men’s bathroom.”

When Laurel asked why he’d been forced to switch bathrooms, he was told that the length of his hair, which suggested he was a male, was more important than his biological gender.

“If you had short hair then you were a boy,” Laurel said.

Although Laurel is only 15, he recognizes that the bathroom issue will definitely be a factor in deciding what college he chooses to attend.

“My feelings are that I would be much more curious about a college offering more progressive and insightful programs [regarding transgender bathrooms] because it would be looking so far ahead,” Laurel suggests.

According to, 89.5 percent of transgender students report feeling unsafe in schools. The Gay-Straight Alliance suggests that the lack of safe bathrooms is the single biggest problem facing transgender students.

Many colleges are reacting to transgender high school and college student’s wishes in regards to housing and bathroom issues. UC Santa Barbara has started equipping new buildings with single-stalled gender-neutral bathrooms. Aimee Reiger, co-chair of FUQUT, the Friendly Undergraduate Queer Unit Together at UCSB, believes that addressing issues such as bathroom neutrality helps promote awareness in the general community about transgender issues.

“I think the addition of these bathrooms will keep people out of danger,” Reiger said.

Though Reiger feels it is important to serve the needs of transgender people by providing adequate bathroom facilities, she maintains that curing the root of the problem—a lack of education—is the single biggest issue.

“I feel like a lot of people aren’t really informed about [the transgender bathroom issue],” Reiger said. “I also feel like education is the main thing that can create the bridge between the people who aren’t accepting and the people who are affected by the issue.”

UCSC is known for being one of the most progressive schools in the UC system, and is one of few campuses nationwide that has unisex bathrooms in most of its dormitories. Only single-sex floors in dormitories do not.

The school decided to switch to unisex bathrooms to accommodate the growing diversity among an expanding student population. Administrators interviewed for this story were unaware of the exact date of unisex bathroom installation, but suggested that it occurred at least a decade ago. Sue Matthews, executive director of University Housing services, believes that the bathrooms were a result of internal pressure to accommodate more diverse needs.

“I think there is a lot of interest in creating a more welcoming environment at UCSC,” Matthews said. “We have the highest number of residents living on campus out of all the UCs so we need to accommodate the wishes of these students.”

The Gender Neutral Housing Task Force, a group started by Kresge students and faculty, has been putting pressure the university to address GLBTIQ issues in housing.

Dave Keller, an administrator for Residential and Family Services, suggested that program such as those proposed by the GNHTF only begin to take flight when students and faculty approach him with their interest.

“Where the interest lies is where we create the program,” Keller said.

The GNHTF is currently creating a curriculum to educate the entire staff at UCSC about any questions that students or parents may have in regards to the gender-neutral housing and bathroom situation.

Michael Yamauchi-Gleason, the college administrative officer for Kresge and Porter Colleges, believes that education about the issue may lead to positive change.

“Education is the key to the advancement of this project,” Yamauchi said.

Administrators did, however, point out that most of the unisex and what could be turned into gender-neutral bathrooms on campus will remain mostly in housing buildings, and not necessarily in classrooms. This will leave most public, non-single stalled bathrooms on campus gender coded, forcing transgendered people to pick a gender.

Lulu, a transgender woman and director of the Diversity Center in Santa Cruz, believes that being able to pass for a certain sex poses a safety concern as well as a bathroom issue.

“Passing [as male or female] really impacts how comfortable you are with using a bathroom,” Lulu said.

Jessie, a recent UCSC graduate and transgendered female, knows what it’s like to be spotted while trying to pass for a gender. While shopping in the Stonestown Mall in San Francisco, she used the women’s room to go to the bathroom. When she walked in, she saw a woman and her small child, but once the mother spotted Jessie she grabbed her child and quickly shoved her out the door.

“I think they were afraid that I was going to harm them,” Jessie said. “Women want a bathroom that’s safe. So when [transgendered] women go into a bathroom [others] feel threatened.”

According to, there is only one gender-neutral bathroom in Santa Cruz, located in the Saturn Café.

Oliver Brink, a waiter at Saturn Café, believes that the owners of the restaurant made the bathrooms gender-neutral to cater to a diverse customer base.

“The Saturn is a place that tries to break boundaries of social norms, such as questioning gender,” Brink said. “I think it also has to do with who they’re trying to cater to. Yes, Santa Cruz is a progressive town, but it caters to the rich. I think the Saturn has a greater group that they’re trying to accommodate.”

Brink also brought up one of the potential downsides of using solely gender-neutral bathrooms, as Saturn was forced to install locks on the bathroom doors after a man exposed himself to a 13 year-old girl.

“That’s one thing I feel like gender neutral bathrooms need: more trust,” Brink said. “People feel more comfortable with people of the same sex.”

Brink believes the way we view bathrooms is due in part to the way that we are raised, and that ultimately, this must be changed in order for the bathroom issue to be properly, and fully, addressed.

“Gender should be more fluid and thought of in more fluid terms,” Brink said. “People just need to feel more accepting of other ways of life.”