On September 15 and September 19, two women were filmed while taking a shower in the Whitney Hall washrooms at University College (UC). It is unclear whether the voyeurs were members of the houses in which the incidents happened, or whether the incidents were linked in any way. In any case, the UC Dean of Students decided to segregate the majority of their washrooms by gender for the first time since the washrooms were first made gender-neutral.
This decision was intended to protect students from further voyeurism, but its actual effect is to validate conservative criticisms of gender-neutral washrooms, as well as to damage the sense of safety of students who do not fit into the gender binary.
It is important to first understand the specific context of this situation. Every washroom in UC’s residence buildings is co-ed, and this policy is clearly stated and communicated before students move into residence. The policy exists in order to reinforce the norm that all UC members are equal, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
Especially for co-ed floors, gender-neutral washrooms encourage students to look beyond barriers like gendered washrooms, which represent one small yet significant way that society reinforces not only the gender binary, but also stereotypes regarding how genders should interact with each other (that is, assuming one’s gender will necessarily impair them from respecting another’s privacy).
What’s more, UC houses both the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and a major LGBTQ student organization, called LGBTOUT. More broadly, UC and its members are known for emphasizing equality and individuality.
More broadly, UC and its members are known for emphasizing equality and individuality.
For these reasons, the LGBTQ community at UC is arguably the most vibrant on campus, while mutual trust and acceptance of gender diversity are incredibly important to the college’s identity.
It is incredibly unfortunate that a college that prides itself on inclusivity and self-expression without judgment has been faced with such a violation of trust. What was perhaps equally disappointing, however, was the UC’s Dean of Students decision to segregate the washrooms.
This decision irresponsibly validates those who have doubts about gender-neutral washrooms, and promotes the idea that students cannot be trusted to engage with one another appropriately in such a private space. Specifically, this decisions sends out the message that women and men are inherently different (and every student necessarily falls into either category), and as such, no two people with different genitals should ever be forced to defecate within one hundred feet of one another. In short, by segregating the washrooms, UC confirms to these traditionalists that the safe space the college has built for people who live outside society’s gender binary is undeserved.
This sentiment is unacceptable. Segregating washrooms is doing these students a disservice. Many individuals, who come to UC specifically for its strong LGBTQ community, now face the prospect that their needs for a safe space are less important than the needs of others.
It is also worth noting that this incident has not been a recurring trend, nor has it been proven the perpetrator was a UC student or even related to the college at all. There does not seem to be a legitimate basis on which a long established tradition of inclusivity and tolerance is unilaterally upended.
By segregating the washrooms, the physical accessibility of the washrooms do not actually change. This means that any voyeur who had the audacity to film students would be able to continue unless the administration physically placed guards at the entrance of the washrooms — an equally ridiculous solution.
The Dean of Students should have left the question of washrooms up to the UC residents, to ensure that students — those who are actually affected by the decision — are comfortable with the outcome.
Holding informational sessions on the gendered, socialized roots of voyeurism, while also encouraging community discussions on the importance of trust on residence, would have better tackled the root of this problem. As it stands, the Dean’s decision only served to reinforce rigid gender stereotypes and move the college backwards, rather than progress together and rebuild broken bonds of trust.
Rachel Ball-Jones is a third-year at University College studying political science, peace, conflict, and justice.