Walking to the bathroom can be a 20-minute odyssey for Blake School’s Schmitty Smith.
Smith must traverse four flights of stairs to the school’s basement where it has set up a single stall bathroom, often used by transgender and gender nonconforming students.
“I usually try to go to the bathroom at home, before I go to school,” said Smith, a senior, who describes herself as gender nonconforming. “But sometimes when I’m having a bad day, or feeling down, which can be a problem for me, I just hold it. And that can get quite painful.”
Blake’s Upper School will open “All Genders Welcome” bathrooms on the main floors in January, becoming one of the first Minnesota schools to offer gender neutral bathrooms for students. Avalon, a charter school in St. Paul, is on the verge of opening a similar restroom.
These schools are placing Minnesota among a growing list of states taking steps to ensure that transgender and gender nonconforming students feel safe and comfortable in school, whether that’s using the restroom or getting dressed in a locker room. Many colleges and universities already have gender-neutral bathrooms and other public facilities, and now they are being opened in a growing number of high schools.
With same-sex marriage now the law in Minnesota, many gay and lesbian advocates have shifted their fight and resources to press harder on issues affecting transgender and gender nonconforming people.
Just a few weeks ago, the Minnesota High School League adopted a policy that allows transgender students to play on sports teams that best match their gender identity.
Most schools in Minnesota currently allow transgender and gender nonconforming students to use whatever bathroom makes them feel most comfortable — boys or girls. But many choose to use semiprivate bathrooms, such as those connected to the nurse’s office.
“This is an issue that’s going to be coming up more and more,” said Phil Duran, legal director for OutFront Minnesota, one of the leading organizations that backed the same-sex marriage effort. “I see Avalon and Blake really at the forefront of this issue, which I think a lot of schools are trying to sort out.”
A welcoming symbol
Jie Wronski Riley was about 3 years old when Jie asked if Santa could turn girls into boys, said Meg Riley, Jie’s mother.
It was the first of many clear signals that Jie’s identity fell outside of the traditional gender binary. And despite Riley’s acceptance and understanding, being the parent of gender nonconforming child can bring an additional set of anxieties.
“The first time Jie went into a men’s bathroom it was absolutely terrifying,” Riley said. “Jie was about 9 years old and we were at the movie theater. As a parent, all you want is for your child to be safe. And I was worried Jie might not be safe.”
Jie hasn’t always felt comfortable using the bathroom at Avalon. While Avalon had an all genders welcome bathroom at its old campus, it doesn’t at its current location.
So about a year ago, Riley started a fundraising campaign to convert a current bathroom into one in which all genders are welcome. They raised $3,000 in less than a month.
Construction is nearly finished and the bathroom is set to open any day.
“It’s really a symbol that Avalon is a welcoming place,” Jie said.
Alison Yocom is one of the leaders of Transforming Families, a support group for transgender and gender nonconforming children and their families based in the Twin Cities.
She said that while a bathroom is just a bathroom, it can hold great significance for transgender and gender nonconforming kids, especially those seeking acceptance from peers.
“It’s probably the number one topic on trans kids’ mind,” said Yocom, whose son is transgender. “You know you have a transgender child when they have a list of preferred bathrooms.”
Recently, there have been several high profile lawsuits outside of Minnesota in which transgender students have successfully sued school districts after they were blocked from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
Yocom said that while the Minnesota High School League vote got more people talking about transgender students and their rights, she felt like the movement to support those children was almost 20 years behind that of gays and lesbians.
“We’re still chipping away at stigma,” she said. “We have to start talking about these kids like they’re normal kids because that’s exactly what they are.”
When Blake’s new bathrooms open, they’ll be open for everyone, not just transgender or gender nonconforming students.
Students were very deliberate selecting signs that say “All Genders Welcome” rather than “Gender Neutral” which might imply it was reserved for students who don’t identify as male or female.
The effort to designate the “All Genders Welcome” bathroom began about four years ago as joint effort between the school’s Gay Straight Alliance and the Justice League. It found wide support among other student groups, teachers and administrators.
“It’s a very basic right — to be able to use the bathroom and feel safe and comfortable,” said Sarah Maude-Griffin, a senior. “And being that Blake has these very fundamental values about being welcoming, I think it’s very important that we follow through on that.”
Head of School Anne Stavney said designating the all genders welcome bathroom is aligned with the value the school places on diversity.
“We are also a college preparatory school and when our students visit college they often come back and say they see these kinds of bathrooms all over the place,” she said.
Blake students say very few peers have been opposed to the move.
“When people say they are upset by this, I keep coming back to the fact that it’s literally just a bathroom,” said Eli Makovetsky, a student. “Nothing is changing except some people who didn’t always feel safe before now can feel a little safer.”