By Rylie Frohock
The Scene staff
Forest Park has joined other colleges and universities across the country by designating gender-neutral bathrooms.
The decision to convert two staff bathrooms was made to accommodate transgender students and others who may not feel comfortable using multi-occupancy bathrooms.
“The process wasn’t terribly involved,” said Ame Mead, dean of humanities and social sciences. “The issue became apparent just because of changes in the student population and the greater societal conversation about gender-neutral bathrooms and facilities in general.”
Mead and Franklyn Taylor, Forest Park vice president of student affairs, took part in a districtwide St. Louis Community College conversation about gender-neutral bathrooms a year ago. Faculty, staff and administrators looked at everything from liability to safety.
Mead and Taylor then considered where to put gender-neutral bathrooms on the Forest Park campus. Converting staff bathrooms made sense as they already were designed for single occupancy.
The conversion took place over the summer with bathrooms in C-220 and F-220. Old signs read “Staff Restroom”and showed a male or female symbol. New signs read “Restroom” and show both male and female symbols.
“I think it’s a really good way that the campus is making sure that they’re in line with the times and what really needs to happen for everyone to have their rights as humans to be addressed and respected,” Mead said.
Controversy has erupted nationwide over the attempts of transgender people to use bathrooms for the genders with which they identify instead of their biological genders.
At Forest Park, officials said there have been a half-dozen complaints from students but no staff resistance to the designation of gender-neutral bathrooms.
General transfer student Amori Turner, 24, appreciates the college’s efforts to accommodate transgender students.
“If they feel comfortable using gender-neutral bathrooms, then of course (they should have that choice),” she said. “Nobody should be discriminated against, ever.”
Turner is an openly bisexual student who has been attending Forest Park off and on for six years. She said she has never felt unsafe or discriminated against on campus.
“I actually surround myself with other people that are gay or bisexual,” she said. “So I don’t really have any problems at all.”
Business administration major Maxi Alexandrovich, 20, also weighed in on the issue.
“I definitely think there should be gender-neutral bathrooms, basically just because the regular bathrooms are overcrowded, so why can’t there be a unisex bathroom for any of your needs?” he asked.
Alexandrovich said he feels safe on campus as an open pansexual, a person who is attracted to people of any sex or gender identity.
“When it comes to LGBT, (Forest Park is) not exclusive,” he said. “It’s not clique-based. If you’re gay, cool. If you’re not, cool. There’s really no stigma about it here. … And then on the side of gender, it’s smart to have a gender-neutral facility, just because right now there’s a whole lot of people that aren’t just male or female. There’s a big gray area.”
The designation of gender-neutral bathrooms is the latest action by the college to serve LGBTQ students. Four years ago, it started participating in the national Safe Zone Project.
Some Forest Park employees attended half-day training sessions to become “allies.” Then they posted rainbow-colored stickers outside their office doors.
The stickers let students know that the offices are “safe spaces,” where they can get resources, feel protected and discuss gender identity or sexual orientation without fear of being judged or harassed.
“I think one just needs to look at the news and see that, unfortunately, there are some people who are not as accepting of differences in our society now,” said counselor Kathleen Swyers, a Safe Zone ally. “… Our college is committed to diversity and inclusion, so offering safe spaces to students is a way to foster inclusion.”
Swyers said the stickers also serve as a visual reminder to LGBTQ students walking down the hall.
“You’re like ‘Oh yeah, there are people who get it and people who are welcoming,'” she said. “… It’s an extra special acknowledgement that you belong here.”
Turner feels comfortable on campus, but thinks the college could do a little more to reach out to LGBTQ students.
“I don’t know if there are that many resources for that type of thing,” she said. “They need to open that up a little more. I’ve never heard anything about LGBT students being able to go talk to somebody about harassment. … Counseling would be the best resource because I do want to be a counselor.”
An LGBTQ club known as Voices has operated on the Forest Park campus off and on in recent years but is now inactive. Former sponsor Kirk Martin said its original goal was “normalization.”
“I did the group actively from 2007 to 2009 and part time the last couple of years, but I haven’t heard of many instances of bullying and harassment,” said Martin, who is facilities supervisor in physical education and athletics.
Martin recalls the club having 10 to 15 members during its most active period.
“It’s pretty much up to them and what they want to do,” he said. “… It takes about 10 students to really want to organize events and want to do it. It hasn’t really picked up steam over the last couple of years.”
Martin said Forest Park faculty and staff have always done their best to make sure LGBTQ students feel comfortable on campus.
“I think we’ve been ahead of the times,” he said. “We were able to accommodate (transgender students) without any guidelines. No one’s come to me with any issues or problems.”
Martin is open to sponsoring Voices again if LGBTQ students want to resurrect it.
Mead sees the designation of gender-neutral bathrooms and continuation of the Safe Zone Project as two ways the college can create a diverse and accepting environment and help all students succeed.
“We need to look at each other as human beings first … and respect the experience that every human has,” she said. “Whether it’s coming to school or using the restroom or having a safe space to go and talk, is a right for all human beings, regardless of how you identify in terms of gender or sexual preference.
“This is an institution made up of learning and expanding your mind,” she said. “And part of that is including people who are different from you.”
Diversity is one of Alexandrovich’s favorite aspects of the Forest Park campus.
“You’ve got people of all ages, race, ethnicity, and sexuality here,” he said. “You’ve got single moms who are just trying to go back to school to get work done, and you’ve got people straight out of high school, and people who are just continuing their education.”