Walking to the restroom 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 restroom, 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 in Hopkins, Minn., will open “All Genders Welcome” restrooms on the main floors this month. Avalon, a charter school in St. Paul, is about to open a similar restroom.
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Minnesota is 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 restrooms and other public facilities, and now they are being opened in many 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 identities.
Most schools in Minnesota allow transgender and gender-nonconforming students to use whatever restroom makes them feel most comfortable — boys or girls. But many choose to use semiprivate bathrooms, such as those connected to a 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.”
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 a 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 restroom at Avalon. While Avalon had an all-genders-welcome restroom 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 restroom into one in which all genders are welcome. They raised $3,000 in less than a month.
Construction is nearly finished and the restroom 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.
Recently, there have been several high-profile lawsuits outside Minnesota in which transgender students have successfully sued school districts after they were blocked from using the restrooms that match their gender identities.
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 restrooms 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” restroom began about four years ago as joint effort of 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 restroom 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.”