West Seattle High School now has a gender-neutral bathroom, one of the first such school bathrooms in the city and the greater Puget Sound area.
Until recently, one West Seattle High School student who was born female but looks masculine didn’t feel comfortable using any of the gender-specific bathrooms at school. So she’d leave campus and cross the street to go to Hiawatha Community Center, where there are more-private bathrooms where no one would give her odd looks.
After hearing her story and many others from classmates who also feel uncomfortable using men’s or women’s bathrooms, students in West Seattle High’s Gay-Straight Alliance decided their school needed its first gender-neutral bathroom.
Last month, they succeeded, officially dedicating the bathroom with a toilet-paper-cutting ceremony, which was first reported in the West Seattle Blog.
It’s among the first gender-neutral bathrooms in a Seattle school — and the Puget Sound area.
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Formerly a small unused women’s restroom with just three stalls, the bathroom is now marked “all-gender restroom” underneath a symbol of a toilet.
“We’re hoping we can nurture a school environment that is more comfortable for all our students,” said senior Ally Finn, an alliance member.
That’s a step beyond what the Obama administration ordered last week — the right of transgender youth to use public-school bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
The announcement came shortly after the U.S. Justice Department sued North Carolina over its law requiring transgender people to use public restrooms and showers that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. A campaign in Washington state is gathering signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot that would have similar requirements.
The Obama directive mirrors Washington state policy. Public schools here must allow students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity, and all students — whether they identify as transgender or not — must have access to an alternative restroom if they want more privacy.
“The guidance issued … by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice affirms that Washington is doing the right thing for our students,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “At a time the rights of transgender students and men and women are under attack throughout the country — and even in our state — I applaud the Obama administration for establishing policies that will better provide all our children an opportunity to thrive.”
Though bathroom-access policies are in place, only a handful of schools have centrally located, gender-neutral bathrooms. In Seattle, they include Nova, Franklin and Interagency high schools along with West Seattle; Nathan Hale High will dedicate one on Tuesday.
This year, Northshore School District’s Kenmore Junior High converted staff bathrooms into two gender-neutral bathrooms for students. North Creek High School, in the same district, will have gender-neutral bathrooms when it opens in fall 2017.
At West Seattle High, the effort to create the all-gender bathroom took students about a year. When they first started last spring, they initially worried about how the school’s administrators would react. But Principal Ruth Medsker and other leaders backed the idea.
The alliance members had to work harder to get some fellow students to embrace it. Some thought the new bathroom would be only for students who identify as transgender. Others didn’t know what transgender meant, or why someone might feel uncomfortable using a restroom designated for women or men.
In March, at West Seattle High’s first Equity Day, members of the Gay-Straight Alliance spoke with their classmates about gender and sexual orientation, and tried to make it clear that the new bathroom would be open to anyone.
“A big part of the process was to start a dialogue about gender identity,” senior Katherine Hoppe said.
Eventually, the students would like the bathroom to have even more privacy.
“We want to make it just one or two single stalls,” sophomore Cal Prinster said. “Unfortunately, we’re not plumbers, so we’re not sure.”
They hope to inspire other schools to follow their lead, and may present their proposal to the Seattle School Board. For now, they’re enjoying the positive response they’ve received, especially from students who use the new bathroom.
Junior Emma Petty, who identifies as gender nonconforming, is one who’s applauding the new facility.
“People are accepting and giving us a safe space,” Petty said. “They’re acknowledging that I exist, and that’s OK.”