By David Seitz
Responding to complaints about privacy and safety, the Department of Residential Life has assigned fixed genders to all previously unspecified bathrooms in Kirk Residence Hall. The change comes after several years of conversation and action that have slowly led to the opening of more gender-blind spaces on campus.Before this year, bathroom signs in many sections of Kirk were furnished with sliding adjustable signs, allowing residents of each section to make the gender assignment themselves. According to Res Life officials, assignments made by students were expected to be permanent as well.”We went back to what we thought was the case all along,” said Keith Edwards, director of Campus Life.The intervention, Res Life officials say, came after numerous complaints from female students that the signs were being crudely misused by their male peers.”Last spring, we heard from a number of female students and a number of parents that they were uncomfortable, that they didn’t feel safe,” Peg Olson, Res Life director, said. “Women living in other sections were going to Section One [which has always had assigned bathrooms] just to have a specific space.”The change should not be read as a step back for gender-neutral accommodations, Olson and Edwards were quick to emphasize.Regarding the issue of gender neutrality, “all students, and particularly transgender students, should know we will work with them,” Edwards said. “We’ve always been able to make accommodations for those students. With Kirk, we haven’t come up with a solution, but we’re happy to meet with students and work with their needs.”Currently, mixed-gender housing options are limited to suites in Grand Cambridge Apartments, George Draper Dayton, and Kirk, all of which include separate bedrooms. Shared private bathrooms in those residential facilities, as well as a communal bathroom in the Wallace basement and public restrooms in the basement of the Campus Center and the fourth floor of Old Main, are gender-blind, Olson said. The Macalester Athletic and Recreational Center (MARC), currently under construction, is also slated to include a gender-blind restroom and locker room, Director of Athletics Travis Feezell said. Kyle Archer ’10 and Bobbi Gass ’10, co-chairs of the Macalester Queer Union, which has played a role in promoting gender-neutral accommodations, said they sensed that administrators were open to a continued expansion of these options.Indicating sympathy with students seeking gender-specific space in Kirk, Gass also stressed the equal importance of gender-blindness in creating a safe environment for all students.”People at Macalester are at all different stages in their comfort with their own sexuality and gender identity, and so not everyone feels comfortable just being around people of a particular gender or having to declare their gender when they themselves are in a state of transition, question or uncertainty,” Gass said. “It just comes down to comfort for a lot of students.”The change in Kirk comes during what many have characterized as a complex and contradictory moment in lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer life at Macalester. In the past three weeks, Macalester was named the best undergraduate institution for gays and lesbians by the Princeton Review. Not long after, a Macalester student was made the victim of an anti-gay hate crime.But on the whole, Archer says, Macalester’s ranking is well deserved.”There’s really nothing concrete about the incident that says that it was perpetrated by somebody from Macalester,” Archer said. “I think that rating has a lot to do with the reaction to such an event. It isn’t the preemptive measures taken by the school so much as the overwhelming support from administrators, student government and students.”Gass agreed, but also stressed the importance of not resting on laurels, in relation to the gender-blind accommodations question.”If the administration is given feasible options to accommodate gender-blind facilities, I think they’d jump at the opportunity to do so,” Gass said. “I’m sensing openness.””But we’re light-years behind schools like Oberlin that have gender-blind showers and a lot of gender-blind housing options and restroom facilities. There’s much more that we can do, and we can look to similar schools that are doing a better job,” he said.