UT must accommodate transgender students, visitors

Josephine MacLean

“We were going to a show called ‘Get Sexy. Get Consent,’ on campus,” said Spencer Phillips, a high school junior who attends the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders here in Austin. 

“We got lost, we walked for about 15 minutes, but I had an anxiety attack along the trail, and that’s where you caught me,” Phillips said.  When I ran into Phillips along Inner Campus Drive last Friday evening, I recognized him because he currently attends my former high school. When I saw him, he was visibly upset. 

“So um, I ended up hyperventilating. We had to go get water, and (my friends) asked if I needed to go to the bathroom.” Phillips explained, “And I said yes, but I don’t think I can use a male restroom here.”

Phillips will be a peer leader with the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble next year, and this is his second year participating in “Get Sexy. Get Consent.” Phillips is mature for 16 years old, with a manly deadpan delivery and a biting sense of sarcasm that he’s spent a long time cultivating. 

Phillips is also transgender, a fact that made his visit to UT far more difficult than it would have been for a cisgender person. “I’m used to holding it. Like holding anything in while I’m at a public place, because I don’t always feel safe,” he said.

“On UT campus I feel slightly safe,” Phillips said. He tends to have sort of a ranking system for places. On a campus with exactly 227 buildings, 44 have gender-inclusive restrooms. 

“I was a little bit wary about getting comments, because a lot of the time, if I do get any comments, it will be in the actual restroom.” Phillips explained, “I’ll go to wash my hands and if someone is beside me, well, I tell them yeah it’s confusing for me too when they say, ‘but aren’t you a girl?’ ” 

Phillips isn’t alone in this predicament. In the 2015 Transgender Survey, 59 percent of respondents said they avoided public restrooms at some point in the past year for fear of harassment. 

After checking four different buildings, and knowing they would already be late to their show, Phillips just decided to hold it. “I’ve learned how to handle it because I’ve come to expect it. And I refuse to go into the women’s bathrooms because I feel really icky,” he said.

At the time of his visit, Phillips was not aware of the Inclusive U app, designed by the Gender and Sexuality Center, which maps UT’s few gender-inclusive bathrooms. 

The GSC, Queer and Trans Students Alliance and other organizations have made a lot of progress documenting and constructing plans to make our campus more inclusive. But that doesn’t change the fact that current policy only requires a gender-neutral restroom every five floors in new buildings. And there are currently no plans to add gender-neutral bathrooms to existing buildings. 

Creating an inclusive campus climate is about actively practicing outreach to our students and visitors. While there can be minor barriers to converting bathrooms, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. It also means making sure our physical space sends the same message as the documents we produce.

In the meantime, there are steps UT should take to make sure Phillips’ experience does not happen a second time. Although UT sends emails about parking and ADA accessibility, those don’t include a map of restrooms on campus. It all seems a little ridiculous when you consider that, when it comes down to it, we all gotta pee. 

MacLean is an advertising and geography sophomore from Austin. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @maclean_josie

Correction: May 2, 2017

A column about gender neutral bathrooms on campus misstated the leadership status of Spencer Phillips with the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble. Phillips will be a peer leader with the group next year.