The Gender-Neutral Bathroom as a Teaching Tool
In one school, children learn important lessons about identity.
On her first day of pre-K, my 4-year-old daughter used a bathroom that was simply labeled “bathroom.” She will, I hope, grow up in a world where bathrooms—like people—no longer exist along a simple gender binary. If only every school could be this enlightened.
In a recent NPR interview, Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School where my children attend, stated that society has evolved to such a place where children should be allowed to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with. This is a rather radical albeit simple way of looking at gender identity.
The issue came to a head in Brooklyn after a transgender New School student requested to use the boys’ bathroom. The New York City Department of Education actually already has its own transgender guidelines, guidelines that support the rights of student to use the bathroom of his or her choice. “I went to a meeting this summer where they were actually discussing this at a pretty high level in the Department of Education,” Allanbrook told Quartz. “I think it’s become an issue across the grades in the public schools in general, not just in the Brooklyn New School.”
"Q," as the student is known, is now in the fourth grade, but he has known he is transgender for several years. Q’s mother, Francisca Montana, told Quartz that the role of the gendered bathroom has long been something of a barrier. “Since the second grade, when he started transitioning, the bathroom has been a big deal,” she told Quartz. “He was wearing girls clothes, but he wanted to go to the boys' bathroom, because he is a boy. But kids in the boys' bathroom would say, ‘What are you doing here?’ Sometimes he would pee on himself.”
Allanbrook knew that something had to be done. The school explored different options before ultimately deciding to take matters into its own hands. Allanbrook decided to change the way that incoming students were introduced to the bathrooms.
“It just made sense with our little ones [pre-K and kindergarten], from the start of the school year, to just cover the sign that says, 'boys and girls,' and just say, 'bathroom,'” she said. “And that’s what we did. My idea is to de-emphasize it and just say, 'OK, these are the bathrooms.'”
Already, the change has made a big difference in the life of Q, according to his mother. But as a parent of two Brooklyn New School children who do not identify as transgender, I too am grateful that my children have the opportunity to learn in such a welcoming and progressive environment. (This isn’t the case everywhere: Recently in Missouri, a transgender student was met with backlash from fellow students after requesting to use the girls’ bathroom.)
Ultimately, a bathroom is a bathroom. There are stalls, which give students the privacy they need to do what they need to do. Plus, having a family bathroom in school teaches children to be respectful of one another. A child will learn that when a stall is locked, they must wait their turn, regardless of the gender of the person inside it.
At the end of her first day, I asked my daughter if the class used the same bathroom. She nodded enthusiastically. “Girls and boys?” I confirmed. She smiled and nodded again. To her, this wasn’t strange in the slightest. This is my daughter’s “normal.”
I support a child’s right to use the bathroom of his or her choice. It is not our place to enforce gender identity on our children. This is especially important for early learners, because their minds are growing and developing rapidly. They are learning about themselves moment by moment and beginning to form their identities as small humans. By enforcing gender stereotypes on them, we are stifling this growth process.
Brooklyn New School psychologist Joseph Klein agrees. Klein believes that the genderless bathrooms are teaching children important lessons.
“I think that the gender-neutral bathrooms for the lower grades are a step in the right direction to do some un-gendering in our culture,” Klein told Quartz. “We’re talking about little people having access to things that they need. … On a deeper level, I think what we’ll see long-term is a less internal sexism and misogyny amongst children.”
I brought up the topic of the family restroom to my 7-year-old son recently. I explained that there are places where people are not allowed to use the bathroom of their choice even if they felt more like a girl than a boy, or vice versa. He couldn’t conceptualize this. “That’s weird,” he told me. I couldn’t be prouder.