Photo of bathroom signs in Walter F. Dexter building (34). Credit: Chloe Kern / Mustang News

When listing the basic necessities that faculty, students, and others that visit campus need, the immediate considerations would be food availability, water fountains, and, lastly, bathrooms. Many students on campus have the luxury of having their bathroom of choice close by and available for them. However, for those who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming, bathrooms are either not accessible or not available. 

Students protesting against the signs in Dexter 

In May 2022, according to the Dean of Students, Joy Pedersen, the faculty made a report that the bathroom signs in Walter F. Dexter building (34) were accompanied by handwritten signs that also read “non-binary.” According to a flier posted outside of Dexter bathrooms, the signs were up for close to six months. 

Then, in Nov. 2022, Pedersen received a bias incident report from students that detailed that gender non-conforming and transgender students do not have safe and affirming bathrooms in the Dexter building. This report also included that the gendered restroom signs on the first-floor bathrooms in Dexter had been removed, and when they had been replaced, the new signs were also removed.

Campus’ response to reports of inaccessible bathrooms

After Pedersen received the report, she convened representatives from the College of Liberal Arts, the Art Department, Facilities, and Student Rights & Responsibilities to hear more about the concerns and identify how to address them. As a result, she organized a listening session to invite students from the Dexter building to share concerns on Jan. 24 in the library. 

During this meeting, representatives discussed the process that it may take to facilitate a gender neutral bathroom within Dexter and on campus overall. Through this session, faculty revealed that through all of campus and facilities, there are only 27 gender neutral bathrooms on campus. Furthermore, according to Cal Poly’s planned giving website, there are currently more than 360 buildings across campus. This means that less than 10% of buildings have a gender-neutral option, according to professor Elizabeth Folk, Art and Design Diversity and Inclusivity Chair. 

Folk explained in an email to Mustang News that every quarter she hosts transgender, non-binary, and non-gender conforming students who are forced to make a walk from Dexter to the Architecture building for an inclusive bathroom. To accommodate this length of travel, possibly multiple times a day, she provides extra break time for students. 

Furthermore, she said a 2015 U.S. Trans Survey reported that “59% of trans folks have avoided bathrooms in the last year because they feared confrontations in public restrooms.” 

Folk said that “some trans/non-binary folks will avoid the restroom if there isn’t a convenient gender-neutral option, which causes urinary tract infections (UTIs) and kidney problems, in addition to stress, anxiety, depression, and a sense of exclusion.”

Why installation of gender inclusive bathrooms is taking so long 

Students and faculty have voiced that they are upset that this project has taken so long for administration to acknowledge and plan to fix. Art and Design professor Enrica Costello told faculty representatives, “I know you say we are just starting, but we are already late.”

However, the representatives have discussed that there are many things that prevented Cal Poly from acting sooner. For example, when AB1732 was passed in 2017, the law required that all single-occupant restrooms be gender neutral. At this time, the school did not have the proper funds to convert any multi-occupant restrooms because they would have had to replace the partition system to allow for more privacy and remove urinals. 

The campus attempted to include gender-neutral bathrooms when they could, according to Pedersen. Prior to this law being passed, campus policy stated that if a new building was constructed or substantially renovated, gender neutral bathrooms had to be included.

Faculty representatives also explained that Cal Poly as an institution is underfunded and that the process to create these restrooms for people to use would require planning, prioritizing and budgeting before it is properly executed. 

When suggesting that they may have to remove urinals from what is now the men’s bathroom, liberal arts and engineering junior Juno Kilborn said, “Urinals are anatomy specific, not gender specific.” 

Students and faculty within the seminar agreed that keeping urials would be acceptable for them. However, there is an issue of fixture counts and ensuring that the school is acting in accordance with  California laws and codes.

Additionally, as a matter of funding and building new bathrooms, the faculty confirmed that they have “plenty of funding needed for operations” and will use money from the Chancellor’s office to supply funds. 

Moving forward with the process

The faculty representatives plan on starting with Dexter, then moving forward to other buildings and facilities. The current plan is to replace the Dexter bathroom signs within the next two weeks. Then, faculty will regroup with students in another seminar Feb. 23 in Kennedy Library, room 209 at 11 a.m. to discuss new changes and progress that will occur throughout the campus.

Faculty and students are grateful for this change and are hopeful for the progress and action that is soon to come.

 Women gender and queer studies professor Alexia Arani told representatives that this is a “cultural shift that is needed at Cal Poly.”

Though many are urging for this process, faculty and representatives want to assure that this will not be a task that is entirely dependent on students. 

Pedersen told students during the seminar, “I don’t expect students to do the lifting.”

Folk also said in an email to Mustang News that “it is unfair to place the burden of this entire conversation on folks who are clearly already feeling cast aside by the infrastructure. This is something that deserves the close attention of all allies across campus.”

Looking into the future, Joy Pedersen wrote in an email that she hopes students will come to a trusted staff member to express any concerns and issues they may have.

There is also a bias incident reporting form that students can use. Pedersen has also offered herself as someone students can talk to to discuss any issues they may have regarding their experience at Cal Poly. Additionally, the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion is another option for students to voice their complaints about inclusivity and campus climate. 

There is no active search for the students responsible for taking the bathroom signs down. Many faculty members have come to the agreement that the main focus moving forward is to incorporate more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus that are accessible and available.

On Jan. 28, the bathroom signs in Dexter, room 136 and 139, were changed to “all-gender restrooms.” Next to the bathrooms, there is also a flier that allows students to scan a QR code that will take them to an anonymous survey, asking about their experience and if they want to see more of these restrooms on campus.

Folk said in an email to Mustang News that she doesn’t think that the “vandalism narrative is a productive part of this conversation,” and instead, “the important takeaway is that basic needs are not getting met for members of our community.”

Pedersen said she wants readers of Mustang News to know that this is a collective issue and that “to those who have been negatively impacted by the lack of gender inclusive restrooms in the Dexter building, I want to extend my commitment to making the student experience better.”