It was a few years ago at General Assembly that gender-neutral bathrooms started appearing. The year they were officially introduced was my first as an official G.A. chaplain—one of four ministers asked to offer spiritual support at our annual assembly of congregations. As I settled into my office at the beginning of the week, I wondered what concerns, feelings, thoughts, or issues people would bring.
Mostly, it was the bathrooms. There was fear and questions. What would they encounter in a gender neutral bathroom? Would people of different genders be “side by side”? Would urinals be “blocked off”? What was the etiquette? What about the discomfort? What if…? I didn’t have all the answers, but I found the questions revealed much about gender privilege.
It turns out many of us have never had to think about the social discomforts of walking into a bathroom, much less fear of violence based on our identity. However, that week at G.A., I heard from transgender persons the incredible relief of being “in the same boat” with the rest of their beloved community. Finally, we were all a little uncomfortable with the bathrooms—and working together to find a new “normal,” a new way of finding our way toward comfort. The discomfort that transgender people may experience every day in public restrooms, cis-gender persons (those of us whose external gender expression matches our internal understanding of gender or our gender assigned at birth) were feeling too, because our hearts were opening to sharing space in new ways. We all got to figure out what it feels like to live in a world with more equal access for all.
Starting this year, you’ll notice educational material popping up in bathroom stalls and new signage inviting you into the conversation. It’s not the solution, but it’s a start.
What is the big deal about bathrooms these days? Bathrooms have long been contested social spaces. Over the centuries they have been segregated by race, class, and gender. They have been places where people have experienced violence and systemic oppression. Even at UCE, there have been challenges and confrontations, but as we learn to trust each person to know what bathroom is right for them, we will make UCE an even more inclusive and safe space. Our church has gender-neutral bathrooms for all as well as gender-specific bathrooms, where each individual can choose where they should be. My prayer is that you find a bathroom that works for you, and use it freely in peace!