Content warning: This column includes mention of suicide.
Go to a University event, visit princeton.edu, or scroll through social media, and you’ll be reminded that Princeton cares for all of its students — that it’s invested in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, that it has abundant resources and opportunities for students from marginalized communities, and that it recognizes LGBTQ+ students as integral to its community.
But Princeton always leaves out one crucial thing: Despite the millions spent on DEI and the repeated platitudes of campus diversity, transgender and gender-non-conforming students continue to face discrimination in accessing basic aspects of living. Gender-segregated bathrooms force transgender and gender-non-conforming community members to make a daily decision between prioritizing their identities or their need to use the restroom.
Gendered bathrooms also often become the unsafe spaces our University rallies against. As one student said, “restrooms based on the gender binary are some of the least safe spaces for gender-diverse students and increase rates of gender-based bullying and harassment. Making Princeton’s bathrooms gender-neutral would make genderqueer students feel much safer and included.” (Students who spoke with me for this op-ed were granted anonymity based on privacy concerns in light of the sensitive and highly personal nature of their experiences.)
I am sponsoring a USG referendum to form a commission to make the majority of our bathrooms gender-neutral. It’s time to live up to Princeton’s proclaimed values.
Gendered restrooms have physical and mental health impacts on transgender and gender non-conforming students that can last long after they graduate. Research has confirmed time and time again that a lack of access to gender-affirming facilities are strongly correlated with depressive moods and thoughts of suicide among transgender youth. In an institution such as Princeton where gender-neutral restrooms do not exist everywhere, transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals also frequently report waiting to use the restroom; this can lead to long-term physical health issues that perpetuate health inequalities based on gender identity and make it difficult for transgender and gender non-conforming students to live on campus.
While Princeton guarantees transgender students access to restrooms corresponding to their gender identity and offers some limited, single-stall gender neutral facilities, these provisions fail to present a comprehensive solution. Transgender students are often forced to justify their identity, and may feel unsafe in both gendered bathrooms. As another student told me, “as a trans man … I feel uncomfortable and out of place in both male and female bathrooms, and feel like I must constantly apologize for my presence. If I didn’t have access to a gender neutral bathroom near my dorm, I don’t know what I would do.”
Additionally, these “solutions” offer little to anyone outside of the gender binary. Under the New Jersey Laws Against Discrimination, all students should have access to their identified gender of expression — including those whose identities don’t rest squarely within the categories of “man” or “woman.” Our current system offers a piecemeal approach that ignores the wider, more complex need for neutral access. Its failures have critical ramifications for students. One student highlighted their experience with Princeton’s residential restrooms approach:
“[G]endered bathrooms caused the bulk of my trauma…coming to Princeton, I thought I’d be able to leave that behind me. Yet my worst nightmare was confirmed when I was told I would have to use gendered showers. Getting that response from my [Director of Student Life] made me feel invisible, especially after voicing all my concerns. I felt powerless. I decided I’d try to suck it up and use gendered showers, but every time I thought about needing to use gendered showers and even using them in the first couple of weeks, I would be sent into a panic attack…I continuously felt gaslit into believing that my discomfort was a nuisance. Luckily, my DSL did put my name down for a room transfer, and I got a new room near a gender-neutral shower within a couple of weeks. [...] The process I had to go through is unacceptable, especially for a university that prides themselves on being accepting and accommodating of all identities.”
It’s clear that our current system places an undue burden on students to self-advocate for what should be guaranteed and cope with the denial of access to basic facilities. But this problem is not confined to transgender and gender-non-conforming students at Princeton — it reflects a wider crisis surrounding gender identity in America. Around the country, a rising tide of hate has led lawmakers, school boards, and institutions to target transgender and gender-non-conforming people. 2022 marks the year in American history with the greatest amount of anti-transgender legislation ever filed. Bathrooms have been a particular target for anti-trans legislation. Around the country, students are quickly finding their rights to gender-affirming spaces and facilities stripped away. Our campus may not be actively contributing to this shift, but we are doing nothing to counter this surging exclusion with actions that would affirm all students’ rights to feel welcome and included.
In the face of discriminatory inaccessibility and senseless hate, Princeton can be different. We can be in the “nation’s service” by showing the nation that our students support their transgender and gender non-conforming peers. We can be “in the service of humanity” by first beginning to fulfill our students’ most basic needs. Already, gender-neutral facilities in the new residential colleges are used daily. We have the solutions at hand. We only need to implement them.
As one of the USG Senate’s U-Councilors, I’m proud to be sponsoring a referendum this Winter Election Cycle that would work to create the safe space we claim to be. If passed next week, the referendum would call on the University to establish a Commission for the Development of Gender-Neutral Residential Facilities composed primarily of students and administrators to investigate how to convert the majority of our bathrooms into gender-neutral spaces. The Commission would investigate and craft a comprehensive set of recommendations for a timeline on majority-gender-neutral residential facilities in the next year. This process would be based on student input and discussions with experts on local regulations, and it would consider the feasibility of bathroom remodeling. And yes, for students living in older dormitories, that means that the commission would likely recommend that your bathrooms be renovated and modernized.
Creating such a commission offers us the chance to engage in respectful, community-wide dialogue on the process of inclusion. It also ensures that we can consider the complexities any new facilities situation presents. As I explained in comments to The Daily Princetonian, there are various reasons a student may prefer (or need) access to a gender-segregated facility. The commission will be able to consider these important perspectives and develop solutions that mirror these circumstances, while affirming the equally valid need for gender-neutral spaces.
By investing in gender-neutral residential facilities, Princeton can assert its support for transgender and gender-non-conforming students while creating a campus where all of us can thrive. Next week, we all have the chance to chart a different course in a national conversation. We can create a welcoming, inclusive community that stands against hate. A vote “yes” on this year’s only referendum is a first step on that journey.
Uma Fox is a first-year from Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.