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Transphobic acts of vandalism target all-gender bathrooms

In early November, the All-Gender Restroom Access Committee launched an initiative to increase bathroom inclusivity across campus. Below gendered restroom signs nailed into walls, the Committee stuck foam panels reading: “This is a multi-stall restroom open to everyone. CMU supports an individual’s choice of restroom.”

On Thursday, one of these signs was jaggedly torn in half.

The incident occurred in the women's first-floor bathroom in Margaret Morrison and was reported to the Campus Police Department. On Friday, Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and chief diversity officer Wanda Heading-Grant sent an email to the Carnegie Mellon community condemning the act of transphobic vandalism and affirming the University’s support of “our fellow trans, intersex, nonbinary (TIN) and gender expansive community members.”

One nonbinary student (A) said that they didn’t expect “something like that would happen here, but maybe that was a naive assessment.” They asked to remain anonymous.

The signs were introduced after about 9 months of discussion between administration and Carnegie Mellon’s Trans, Intersex, and Nonbinary Alliance (TINA). In an interview with The Tartan, founding member kai ell denazen said that TINA began in the Spring of 2019. Roughly thirty students and faculty members are currently part of the group.

“Nonbinary people have to use the men's and women's bathrooms because oftentimes gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t readily available,” explained another nonbinary student (B), who also wished to remain anonymous. “It’s the most unideal place because we’d rather use the all-gender bathrooms...We’re not trying to invade anyone’s privacy in the bathroom, we just need to pee.”

Need for more gender-inclusive bathrooms is “disguised as something that is not urgent but is always urgent,” denazen explained. “My experience is defined by not passing as cis, and I have never felt comfortable in CMU restrooms.” For many TIN students, they said, the business intrinsic to the Carnegie Mellon workload is compounded by a constant race to find an inclusive bathroom on campus.

TIN individuals face increased risk of violence, employment discrimination, family stressors, and psychological challenges compared to their cisgender counterparts. “We are a small community with a great need,” denazen said.

The message sent by Heading-Grant specifically addressed the defacement of restroom signage, but other incidents have slipped through the cracks. Stickers have been appearing in bathrooms and other public spaces boasting implicitly transmisogynistic rhetoric. About two weeks ago, Student A noticed a sticker in a CFA women’s bathroom. “Woman” was written across the top, under which “noun” was placed in italics, resting above a definition: “adult human female.”

At first, they didn’t think much of it. But when they got back to their room, their roommate said they saw the same sticker plastered on the Morewood and Forbes crosswalk pole. The roommates learned that the stickers are from a website that sells trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) merchandise. Student A decided to file an anonymous bias report through DEI’s Report-It site.

TERFs perceive trans women as a threat to femininity; they claim “feminism” as a movement exclusive to cis women. Political journalist Katelyn Burns boils TERF ideology down to the “claim that trans women are really men, who are the ultimate oppressors of women. Most of their ideas — like that trans women are a threat to cisgender women’s safety — are based on cherry-picked cases of horrific behavior by a small number of trans people.” Ultimately, TERFs deny trans people “any autonomy over their gender expression.”

Another sticker was found in a women’s bathroom in Wean reading, “Female. Nothing more. Nothing less.” It was produced by the same website. Student A said what particularly concerns them is that someone is going around campus with multiple rolls of transmisogynistic stickers; the designs are sold individually. In each instance, the stickers were quickly removed.

The “adult human female” design was printed on billboards in Liverpool in 2018 and subsequently removed after allegations were made that the campaign promoted a transphobic hate group. The woman behind the ad denied allegations of transphobia, “but said the idea that trans women were women was ‘preposterous’.”

The stickers appeared in response to the “trans people are welcome here” bathroom flyer campaign, according to Rue Taylor. Taylor, who is trans and a first year graduate student in Heinz, began putting up the flyers because she “saw a need to explicitly state that trans people could use the bathrooms they want.” Many were torn down by students and faculty, but Taylor was undeterred. When she saw the TERF stickers, however, she “started to feel a lot less comfortable on campus.” The University approved of the new gender-inclusive foam signage shortly after.

For Taylor, the change was bittersweet: while she no longer felt the need to put up posters because a University-sponsored initiative had taken action, the signs did not include specific language about gender identity. Taylor had hoped the phrasing would address trans people, to create a more intentional message about inclusivity. Nevertheless, she knew of multiple trans friends that now feel comfortable going to the bathroom because of the new foam boards.

According to A, there has been a lot of discussion about the incidents “internally within TINA.” Yet most changes around campus, like the introduction of gender-inclusive bathroom signage, have been subtle and unannounced. “I don’t think [cis people] would raise an eyebrow” at the stickers, they said, because “they are not explicitly transphobic. They’re more of a dog whistle.”

While the sticker’s simple phrasing does not immediately appear to be problematic, “adult human female” refers to the TERF belief that trans women fail to qualify as “real women” because TERFs conflate gender identity and birth sex.

Student B noticed that one of the bathroom inclusivity signs in front of the women’s bathroom near Hunan Express “was creased, like someone was trying to pull it off.” Like the stickers, it did not appear to be explicitly transphobic. They felt the crease was “not enough to be worthy of a report” but was “suspicious that someone would try to take it off.”

Taylor referred to numerous instances around campus where the signs are torn. “Even when it’s a University-sponsored installation, cis people still feel as though they’re entitled to tell trans people they don’t belong here.” She recalled two recent incidents of older cis women coming into the bathroom, seeing her, and leaving. Taylor is “considering stopping using the women’s restroom” because it puts her in a “dangerous position.”

On Aug. 6, 2020, TINA wrote to President Farnam Jahanian and Senior Leadership specifically outlining ways to make the University safer and more inclusive. Their demands are introduced in “Actionable Steps for All-Gender Equity at CMU,” a 21-page self-described “living document” that establishes a clear timeline and process for the University to disrupt barriers against TIN community members. Most demands have yet to be met.

One of TINA’s demands is for housing to default to all-gender plans and require students to opt-in to single-gender housing, reversing the status quo. Two all-gender floors currently exist for first-year students: one in Stever House, the other in Morewood Gardens. Last spring, the majority of students approved of or had no preference surrounding all-gender housing.

TINA’s plan of action also called for “all bathrooms [to] be designated as all-gender in the interim immediately.” One of the most prominent arguments against all-gender bathrooms centers around the argument that women are at an increased risk of violence. Student A pointed out that, as it stands, anyone can walk into any bathroom, regardless of a gendered sign. “I don’t know why they’re coming for us” — TIN individuals — “when it’s not our fault.” They felt that society generally (not CMU specifically) embraces an irrational fear that trans and non-binary people are the threat, when they are the ones most at risk.

“Some nonbinary people are comfortable with using the men’s & women’s bathrooms, like my roommate,” Student B noted. Many “binary trans people also would prefer to use the men's and women's bathrooms according to their gender — trans women have to fear being harassed if they have to use the men's bathrooms, and trans men using the women's bathrooms might cause even more misunderstandings.”

Rather than focus on risks, Student A said, why not implement safer facilities? Implementing safety measures such as higher stall walls can universally increase privacy. These changes were made in Stever bathrooms, where visibility into stalls is nearly zero and each shower can be locked. TINA recommended the University collaborates “with an industry expert in the remodeling of bathrooms, like Stalled!.”

Taylor unpacked the dichotomy facing many TIN individuals: “the more visible we are, the more danger we’re in, but the more work we can get done.” Because of this, she emphasized the need for “CMU administration to be loud and persistent on behalf of trans people.”

“To any allies who’ve seen the transphobic things going on on campus,” said Student B, “don’t focus on the TERFs.” Instead, they urged students to “uplift trans and nonbinary voices through TINA and PRISM. Listen to what trans people have to say.”

Bias incidents can be reported to staff members at the Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on the lower level of the UC or by calling 412-268-2150. Students who wish to remain anonymous can submit anonymous reports through Report-It online using the username “tartans” and password “plaid”. For other ways to report bias incidents, students can visit the Bias Reporting and Response page on the DEI.