All genders welcome

After seeing an increase in students freely expressing different gender identities, West High has recently moved to open gender-neutral restrooms to accommodate non-binary students.


West High’s first public gender-neutral restroom is located in the art hallway.

When a student normally walks into a bathroom at school, their main fear is that they won’t make it to class on time. But for a non-binary student, just stepping into the bathroom means facing stares, taunts and possible harassment. However, many of these fears can be alleviated with the addition of a gender-neutral restroom.

Although there have been talks of bringing gender-neutral restrooms to West in the past, the current construction makes it easier than ever to install one. As of after spring break, West High now has a fully- functioning gender-neutral restroom. The bathroom is made for a single user, so students wanting to use the restroom can do so in complete privacy without any fear of confrontation. It is located in the art hallway, in between Rooms 153 and 155.

“I think it will take one point of stress away from [non-binary students] during the day. They won’t have to worry about being judged when they enter a bathroom,” said West High principal Gregg Shoultz.

The debate over gender-neutral bathrooms has spanned the course of a decade, but they have only recently been making an appearance in ICCSD. After a huge push from City High School’s Student Senate and some transgender and non-binary students at City, the school received a public gender-neutral bathroom at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

“At City, the problem was there were a lot of trans students like myself who didn’t want to use the restroom throughout the entire day because they didn’t feel safe going into the restroom with which they identified,” said Xeniphilius Tyne ’20, a City student who identifies as gender non-conforming, but primarily presents as masculine.

I’ve been kind of corralled and looked at. No one’s really said anything but they actually come up to me, look at me and get near me. It’s like they’re threatening me non-verbally. They’re trying to intimidate me.

— Havana Heitman '21

The need for gender-neutral restrooms might go unnoticed by some, but for gender non-conforming and transgender students, these restrooms can make a world of difference. Last fall, a group of students, parents, ICCSD employees and community members teamed up with researchers from the University of Iowa to form a task force specifically pertaining to LGBTQ students. Based on the results from the 2017 climate survey, the task force made a list of recommendations for the district to follow in order to improve feelings of safety and acceptance for LGBTQ students. According to the survey, only 21 percent of non-binary students said they always felt safe in hallways and bathrooms. To combat this issue, the task force overwhelmingly recommends that all schools have a gender-neutral restroom that is easily accessible by students.

For a student who doesn’t fit into the traditional gender binary, using a restroom that doesn’t correlate with their personal identity may contribute to feelings of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is the condition of feeling that one’s psychological identity is different from their biological sex. Conversely, going into a bathroom that feels more true to themselves may result in violence, harassment or intimidation. This is especially true for students who may not be passing, meaning they have not transitioned to a point where they look like the gender they identify with.

“I’ve been kind of corralled and looked at. No one’s really said anything but they actually come up to me, look at me and get near me,” said Havana Heitman ’21, a transgender male student at West. “It’s like they’re threatening me non-verbally. They’re trying to intimidate me.

Under Iowa law, gender identity is currently protected and public schools cannot force students to use a bathroom they do not identify with. Therefore, transgender students do have the ability to use the bathroom they feel most accurately represents their identities. Yet even if students do feel comfortable using their correct restroom, biological factors may prevent them from doing so.

“I’m a trans man, but I still have my period. The problem is there are really no devices or anything I can use in the men’s bathroom, so I’m forced to use the women’s bathroom because of the different things available to me. If I’m passing as male, that can be awkward, or if I go to a male bathroom but I am not passing, that can also be awkward. It can just lead to a lot of bad social situations,” Heitman said.

The process of getting a gender-neutral restroom at City started after their Student Senate came forward in favor of a more inclusive option for transgender and non-binary students. The group sent an email to Kingsley Botchway, the Director of Equity and Engagement for the district, during the summer of 2017, citing reasons why City was in need of a gender-neutral restroom.

Originally, the gender-neutral restroom at City was a men’s bathroom, but has since been converted in order to create the new all-gender restroom in a quick and cost-effective manner. According to Botchway, there was very little backlash resulting from the decision.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have your school make a decision or enact a policy that directly supports you and who you are.

— Kerri Barnhouse, COLORS advisor

“There was some commentary, but that was misinformation. Basically, there was a [rumor] that we were transitioning all the boy restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms and not changing any of the girl restrooms,” Botchway said. “That wasn’t the case. Once that was cleared up, we didn’t have any additional commentary.”

Historically, the LGBTQ community has suffered many legislative defeats. Just last year alone, the transgender community in particular dealt with controversial bathroom bills in North Carolina and other parts of the country, as well as an attempted ban on transgender soldiers. For gender non-conforming students at City, the gender-neutral restroom appeared to be a long-awaited symbol of justice.

“It was a major victory. At the time, I had just recently come out, too. It was scary to go from just coming out to already being like, ‘Okay now I’m taking an [activist] role!’” Tyne said.

According to Bihotza James-Lejarcegui ’18, a City student who assisted in getting the gender-neutral restroom, the situation still isn’t perfect. For example, there are no sanitary napkin receptacles in the stalls for students who get their periods. However, James-Lejarcegui still thinks the bathroom has been a positive addition.

“I think it makes the school as a whole more inclusive, just having it there, having students see it there, not having it be some weird thing in the corner but [something that] anyone can go into,” James-Lejarcegui said.

With every new change comes the chance of controversy, but after years of debating the issue, some administrators and teachers believe West may be at the point where these student needs outweigh the potential backlash.

“I think people often look to us—Iowa City, West High, City High—as being leaders in this area. I’d love to be able to set the example because once maybe a few schools start doing it, then more will,” said Kerri Barnhouse, the advisor of West High’s Gay-Straight Alliance COLORS. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have your school make a decision or enact a policy that directly supports you and who you are.”