University Dean of Students Allen Groves sent an email Saturday to Lawn and Range residents announcing the designation of a gender-neutral bathroom on the West Lawn.
One bathroom chamber in the West Lawn men’s restroom will now be classified as gender-neutral, and all Lawn and Range residents will have swipe access through the front door. There are currently three private stalls within the restroom, each with its own shower, toilet and sink.
“Designating one of these private cubicles as gender-neutral allows us to insure access to this space by Lawn and Range residents who elect to use this option, as well as guests of residents whose gender/identity may be different from the resident who has thus far only had swipe access to the bathroom of their own gender/identity,” Groves said in a statement attached to the email.
Lawn residents and fourth-year College students Mitchell Wellman and Drew Kiser spearheaded the effort to secure a gender-neutral bathroom option for current and future residents. Wellman, who is also chair of the University Judiciary Committee, said the project was a collaborative effort between himself, Kiser, Groves and DeAnza Cook — the Senior Resident of the Lawn and a fourth-year College student — that began in the fall.
“We’re trying to broaden the scope of who is welcome to the Lawn community by way of this project, and of course the other thing is that we talked about how some of our guests have access to these restrooms and may not identify as one gender,” Wellman said. “Personally, one of the reasons I believe in this is that it serves as a symbol of something more welcoming in the Lawn community for future residents who may not identify with one gender or may not want to talk about that kind of thing.”
Groves said Wellman and Kiser proposed the idea of a gender-neutral bathroom in a meeting with him last August. Wellman and Kiser had two additional meetings with Groves in the fall and one meeting in January, and worked with the Office of the Dean of Students to determine options for a gender-neutral bathroom.
Cook said she served as a mediator and facilitator between ODOS and the Lawn residents in the discussion of the bathroom redesignation.
“We talked about the West [Lawn’s] men’s bathroom in particular because it was unique in design because there's a closed area with a toilet, shower, and sink, which eliminates privacy concerns,” Cook said.
Last semester, Wellman and Kiser arranged a town hall meeting with Lawn residents to discuss the possibility of a gender-neutral bathroom. They also issued a survey among residents to gather feedback regarding the implementation of a gender-neutral bathroom.
“It started with a dialogue we had with the Lawn residents, and we were able to hear a lot of different opinions of putting something like this on the Lawn,” Wellman said. “From that initial dialogue, we developed a survey that was a not a binary survey, for example ‘Do you want this or not,’ but it was layered and there were lots of different options because the Lawn and Range share restrooms.”
Kiser said that the most difficult part of the process was talking with Lawn residents about if and how to go about implementing a gender-neutral bathroom.
“This was the most trying part of the process mentally, because we all had to ask ourselves what, exactly, is the purpose of the Lawn, and how can we make it more inclusive — not just for gender nonconforming students, but also for students who might prefer only sex-segregated bathrooms,” Kiser said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Wellman said the West Lawn Men’s bathroom was a “natural point of interest,” because it is a free-standing building with three private bathroom chambers. Two of the restrooms will remain designated for men, and the third chamber will be gender-neutral. All Lawn and Range residents will now have access into the West Lawn bathroom through the front door, which was previously accessible to male residents only.
Wellman said the ongoing debate concerning gender-neutral restrooms compelled him to pursue this project.
“I think that every time is a good time to be more inclusive, and as a Lawn resident this year, it’s my opportunity to erect that change,” Wellman said. “We had an ‘if not now, then when’ mentality that motivated us, and I can’t be happier with the payoff.”
This announcement comes after University President Teresa Sullivan and Provost Tom Katsouleas’s released a statement affirming the University’s commitment to the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy and the inclusion of LGBTQ students, faculty and staff in the University community.
The statement was in response to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter revoking previous federal guidelines that instructed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
However, Groves said the announcement of the gender-neutral bathroom and the University’s statement are not related.
“The process began many months ago and was recently concluded with a final decision,” Groves said in an email statement.
Baxter Craven, chair of the Range and a graduate Architecture student, also aided in the effort to provide a gender-neutral bathroom for Lawn and Range residents.
Craven said he worked with Area Coordinator Michael Jones to improve accessibility of the Range and Lawn. Craven also said the Academical Village is not easily accessible for people with disabilities, and that some female residents on the Lawn are at a disadvantage because of the distance between their rooms and the their designated restrooms.
“As you know, the University of Virginia was a male only institution for about one-hundred-and-fifty years. When women were finally admitted, facilities for them had to be squeezed into whatever space could be found or made,” Craven said in an email statement. “For the Range, that meant converting rooms 51WR and 53WR — and for the Lawn, that meant digging out an entirely new room under the west side. The restrooms for women are obvious afterthoughts.”
Craven, who began working with Wellman and Kiser this semester, said a more accessible restroom is important for the transgender community, those with disabilities and cisgender women whose designated restroom is far from their Lawn room.
“It is important to note that there is not an accessible Lawn or Range room for those with disabilities, but this will benefit any resident with family or friends who might have need,” Craven said.
Groves said in his statement to Lawn and Range residents that the University is currently in the process of replacing the signage, but that all Lawn and Range residents will have swipe access to the West Lawn restroom front door by next week.
Kiser said the implementation of a gender-neutral restroom will make the Lawn more inclusive, and will ensure that future students feel welcome in the Academical Village.
“What impressed me the most is the speed with which the Administration took our initiative, listened to what we were asking for, and responded in kind,” Kiser said. “This gave me a lot more faith in the relationship between the administration and us students.”