Iowa Memorial Union now includes gender-neutral restroom

BY BRIANNA JETT | APRIL 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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On the third floor of the Iowa Memorial Union, an old bathroom now has a new name.

One family restroom was relabeled as a “gender-neutral restroom” in an effort to be more inclusive to students and guests who may feel uncomfortable using a gender-specific restroom.

“We decided to label it gender-neutral to recognize our growing needs,” said Patricia Kruse, a member of the BeYou@IMU, the group that implemented the change. “We want to make sure people feel welcome.”

Kruse is also the associate director of IMU administration and operations.

Not all students identify as either female or male, which can lead to discomfort when it comes to choosing a restroom to use.

“I think it’s important for a university campus to recognize that there is a large continuum of how people identify themselves,” Kruse said.

But gender-neutral restrooms can be more than just feeling welcome — they can be the difference between danger and safety for some students.

“A restroom is really important when you are gender fluid or gender non-conforming,” said Nicole Nisly, who leads the LGBTQ clinic at the Iowa River Landing. “It’s a place where people could suffer violence if they are in the wrong place.”

For example, if a transgender woman uses a male restroom, it could potentially lead to violence. However, if she uses a female bathroom, that could subject her to hostility.

“[Using the restroom] could be an incredibly dangerous thing to do,” Nisly said. “People can get hurt, bullied, and harassed.”

Gender-neutral restrooms provide a safe place without the constant pressure to choose the safest option.

“By offering gendered restrooms, it makes it very difficult for a gender non-conforming person to just live their lives normally because they really have to think about it and see which place is likely to be the safest,” she said.

Until flood recovery is finished, Kruse said this restroom change will be the only one. She hopes to make more changes once the money is there to fund them.

Katie Imborek, who leads the LGBTQ clinic at the Iowa River Landing with Nisly, is impressed that the IMU decided to change the restroom in an area that was not already being remodeled.

“I think it’s really exciting when we are getting to the point where we are not waiting for new construction or remodeling but we are proactively changing restrooms that were labeled something before,” she said. “I think that is a really good sign.”

The newly labeled restroom will be marked on the IMU website, which Nisly said is very important. She believes gender-neutral restrooms should be clearly labeled and mapped out, so a person does not have to ask to find them.

“For you to ask, it kind of makes you come out,” she said.

The new label will do more than just make people more comfortable — it could also stir up conversations.

“When they do label it gender-neutral restroom, then I think it brings it up to a level of consciousness,” Imborek said.

Nisly said that most members of the public does not even think about this issue because they have no need to.

“There is a particular privilege of being gendered,” she said. “Everything in the world around you is marked in one form or the other.”

However, every change to a restroom, or the recent  addition of a transgender option when applying for admission at the University of Iowa is a chance for discussion, she said.

“They become opportunities for reflection, for you to talk to your kids, for people to think about what it is like to be in the majority and what it’s like to be in the minority,” Nisly said.

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