ROCK SPRINGS — Imagine being a busy college student — trying to make it to class on time, keep up with homework and projects, be involved with social activities, and somehow manage to find time to sleep. The last thing you have time to stress about is bathroom breaks. But for some students, finding a bathroom where they feel safe and comfortable that’s convenient in their hectic schedule can be an overwhelming problem.
This problem is one that students at Western Wyoming Community College now can worry about a little less, since the college added two new gender-neutral bathrooms to the Rock Springs campus.
The Rocket Miner sat down with Vice President for Student Services Philip Parnell, Student Success Advisor Daisy Moore and Associate Professor of Composition Heather Pristash to talk about this decision, how it came about, and the impact it has on the college and the students. Moore headed the project, and Parnell helped with the procedures that made it possible. Moore and Pristash are also both advisors to Be LeGiT, Western’s Gay-Straight Alliance and LGBTQ+ club. All three individuals were involved in making the new bathrooms a reality.
The need for gender neutral bathrooms on campus has existed for years, Pristash explained, and the idea of building them had been discussed, but the opportunities to act weren’t available, In addition, a lack of understanding of why the need was important left many people without a sense of urgency in making any changes. However, the ball got rolling two years ago when some transgender students approached the Policy and Procedures Committee about the issue.
Once the need was presented and more concrete discussion began, there was almost no opposition to the idea. Parnell said that the only concerns that came up were due to the fact that when people hear “gender-neutral bathrooms” they think it means one large multi-stall bathroom where men and women are all in the same space together. This was not the intention or plan at WWCC. The bathrooms are gender-neutral as opposed to gender-segregated, Pristash clarified, but they are single restrooms for one person at a time.
When the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms was brought to Policy and Procedures, Moore, then the coordinator for Student Life, saw the opportunity to pursue the issue. This time, it was more of a possibility. Committee members advocated for the bathrooms, reviewed the issue with the college’s board members, and then worked with the Western Leadership Council. At this point, most of the discussion focused on more practical details and logistics, Parnell explained, particularly where the bathrooms should be located, and making one of the bathrooms also handicap accessible in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Two bathrooms were chosen on different sides of the campus. One of the bathrooms, located near the theater, is also near a lactation room, and construction was done to make the bathroom larger and ADA compliant. Although construction and funds were needed to adapt the two bathrooms, Parnell said that the issue was important and worth spending money on.
One of the biggest decisions to make was what terminology and sign to use. Different phrases were discussed, and multiple sign possibilities were chosen. Members of Be LeGiT voted on the final sign, using the term “All Gender Bathroom.” Moore explained that the goal was to choose what would be the most comfortable for people. The students, particularly those affected by this decision, were the ones to have the ultimate say.
As far as Moore, Parnell and Pristash are aware, these may be the only specifically labeled gender-neutral bathrooms in Rock Springs. Moore explained that they felt it was important for the signs to be explicit in order to be welcoming to the whole community, and Pristash added that choosing to use specific terminology shows the difference between tolerating and welcoming.
The response to the bathrooms has so far been positive, particularly from transgender students expressing gratitude and feeling more welcome, LGBTQ+ allies feeling better about being a part of the school, and faculty members praising the decision, according to Pristash.
However, many people still may not fully understand the need for these kinds of changes. Pristash noted that for many people, if something is not a need that they themselves experience, they don’t even consider it or may struggle to understand it. But she said that anyone who is able to sit down and have a conversation with a trans person is usually able to understand. It’s a question of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see their perspective.
Pristash said that there has been a healthy LGBTQ+ community in the area and at the college for a while now, including many transgender students at various points on the spectrum who didn’t feel like they had a place that was safe and comfortable to use the restroom. With violence against LGBTQ+ individuals being at “heartbreaking levels” in many places, Pristash explained decisions like where to use the bathroom became “survival issues.” Thankfully the WWCC campus has seen little to no personal violence, and Parnell said the majority of the students are accepting on a level that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Still, for many trans students, this was an issue affecting their lives in major ways. Pristash expressed that going to the bathroom shouldn’t be a stressful consideration or a battle plan, and it’s not fine for students to be running late to classes or fighting bladder infections because of the difficulty of finding a bathroom where they could be comfortable. When an issue starts to affect students’ physical and mental health and academic performance, it becomes a need.
The goal of the college is to prioritize students’ education, and to make adjustments that are needed to make that possible, Moore pointed out. In this case, it was making adjustments to the bathrooms. Trans students deserve to be comfortable and safe as much as anyone else. Having bathrooms where they can feel that allows them to prioritize their education and not be distracted by that extra worry. Moore said that the college, as a part of the community, wants to be a place that is welcoming, accessible and safe to all community members.
Wyoming is full of a “live-and-let live” attitude. Parnell noted that Westerners are independent and usually mind their own business, which can be helpful in an attitude of tolerance toward LGBTQ+ individuals. However, Pristash said that the goal is to go a step beyond this attitude into a place of more genuine understanding.
WWCC is constantly working on being a safe place where anyone can ask questions and learn, and many people and groups at the college are working on spreading education further. Moore and Pristash explained that Be LeGiT in particular is working to inform people of LGBTQ+ issues, including going through training and hosting events. Pristash explained that one goal is to help people understand that being gay, trans, etc., is for so many people a part of their identity, not something that stops or that’s only relevant at certain times, but a major part of their daily existence.
Parnell, Moore, and Pristash expressed that including these gender neutral bathrooms at the college was an important step, and as awareness continues to spread, Western will continue to take steps to improve and become a safe and welcoming space for everyone.