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In Depth: Struggle for Gender Neutral Bathrooms

Posted: Updated: Feb 19, 2015 05:50 PM
Eoghan Barrett Eoghan Barrett
Scott Rheinheimer Scott Rheinheimer
Andre Cavalcante Andre Cavalcante
Todd Howard Todd Howard
ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) -

The push for gender-neutral restrooms is playing out in schools and businesses in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

The thought of where to use the bathroom seems simple but what if every time you went to the bathroom, you were faced with questions of how society would judge you or where you actually fit in? 

For people who don't identify with their birth sex, this decision is real and at times overwhelming. Transgender people say they face discrimination and harassment when trying to use a restroom they feel comfortable in, even though they are not biologically that gender.

Eoghan Barrett says that happens all too often when he uses public bathrooms.  "In the bus station, I was going to go use the bathroom and I walked into the male bathroom and one of the employees there was like 'uhh that's the male bathroom you can't go in there,'" he stated. "There's people who seem to know your gender better than you and that's really frustrating when they think that.” 

Eighteen-year-old Barrett says he knew from a very early age. “I didn't really want to walk into the ladies bathroom anymore, I was done with that. I was done with having to identify female or whatever."

Ever since that moment, he's decided to use a male restroom or if harassed use a gender-neutral stall if it's available. "It would make things so much easier on anyone, whether they identify as transgender or not, if there was just bathrooms. Not male, female bathrooms, if there was just...bathrooms." he stated.

Scott Rheinheimer, the LGBTQ student services director at the University of Virginia, thinks there's a good reason why gender-neutral bathrooms are in more demand.

"LGBT...the T used to be silent, well the T is no longer silent. You're starting to see this community finally break into mainstream society and be seen by mainstream society," he said. "If you have two single-stall facilities and they're labeled, they're gendered.  Un-gender them."

Younger generations like Barrett's are the ones breaking the silence. "You don't know my gender, I know my gender." he said.

Andre Cavalcante, a professor of gender and media studies at UVA says the transgender community gaining traction.

"You're seeing this more with young people especially. They're increasingly crafting identities that aren't specifically male or female. I think they live in a much more fluid world than we did when we were growing up,” he said.

Cavalcante says even with this, bathrooms are still a stigma. "Imagine that act being full of fear...insecurity and anxiety...and not knowing whether it's going to be safe for you to do this very ordinary thing that we all do."

"It's heartbreaking then and it's heartbreaking now to know that someone can't use a space that's supposed to be private, for the very simple means of who they are," Rheinheimer stated.

Activists want to see more restaurants and schools adopting the idea of offering gender-neutral single stall or multi-stall bathrooms.

Albemarle County High School provides five gender-neutral bathrooms for students. Charlottesville High School only has gendered bathrooms. Students there say because of that, transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing.

Businesses like Escafe in Charlottesville have decided, gendered bathrooms aren't practical. “We all as businesses deal with multi-generational patrons. You know our guest pool is multi-generational. Period," said Escafe owner Todd Howard.

Escafe is not alone. Activists at UVA have developed an online map that pinpoints nearly all businesses in Charlottesville that have gender neutral bathrooms.

"People just want to go to the bathroom. You know they want to get in and get out and it's a very sort of functional space." Cavalcante stated.

Despite whether society decides to acknowledge Barrett's transition, he hopes more establishments can understand that equality is the ultimate right he's fighting for.

"It's hard to explain to someone how I feel about being in the wrong body. It's really hard to explain," he stated. "I know for a lot of older folks it's hard to let go of how you were raised and born and I understand that, but I think it's about time that it's accepted and maybe understood a lot better."

Eoghan says his family and friends have been his biggest support network. He encourages people who are transitioning genders or thinking about it to make sure they have a strong group around to help them through difficulties that come with being transgender.

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