E-Systems And Teachable Moments
**Guest Blogger: Navah Kelman Becker
I read an article the other day in The Atlantic (from 2015) about gender neutral bathrooms. The idea of gender neutral bathrooms fascinates me - and not because they are so radical, but because of how normal they are (they are in your own home right now!).
But there is no question that this issue is both critical and sensitive, public and private. With a rise in transgender and gender non-conforming children, school adminisrators and school disctricts have been forced to frame this most personal issue as policy. Debates over gender neutral bathrooms are becoming more and more common, as schools and families struggle to not only unpack the complex issues for themselves, but then also explain them to their communities, stakeholders, parents and children while trying to balance both sensitivity and education.
The idea of gender neutral bathrooms fascinates me - and not because they are so radical, but because of how normal they are (they are in your own home right now!).
Often, in public spaces - such as shopping malls or other large event venues - gender-neutral bathrooms are called “Family Restrooms,” and are typically single-toilet spaces. Today, many universities are being encouraged - often led by their own students - to make more bathrooms inclusive and accessible for everyone, in particular in their dormitories.
Recently, in an article about Oberlin College and their “E-system,” I learned that the signs on all of their bathrooms were replaced with a rotating capital letter E. When it says “E”, Everyone can use the bathroom. The E is actually the default setting, so when a person is finished, it’s expected to be re-set to E. When the E is rotated to the left, it looks like a W - which means only women can use it. If it’s rotated to the right, looking like an M, then only men can use the bathroom. If it’s rotated all the way, so it looks like a 3, it stands for “Me, Myself, and I” then the bathroom becomes a private bathroom.
It’s both a creative and empowering solution. It respects private choice while honoring the complicated reality in which we live.
But not all schools have the flexibility or the population of Oberlin.
I do understand the challenges faced by elementary, middle, and high schools. As a parent of three - one in each of those school categories - I feel each developmental stage’s complexity when it comes to untangling these issues. Ultimately, I would love to see the conversation around gender evolve away from a focus on a simple binary and toward a more inclusive, expansive understanding of gender. Any school can claim that it’s population doesn’t need to open the conversation. I’ve stopped counting the number of times a well-meaning parent or educator says, “Well, we certainly don’t have any non-gender conforming students, so it’s not our issue.” I’d argue that until we - the educators, the adults, the parents - prioritize this as an issue, our schools can never claim to be truly welcoming to all. We simply never know what struggles face our students, or where their secret pain lies.
We already know that the majority of transgender students avoid bathrooms because they feel unsafe. They risk verbal and physical harassment regardless of which gendered bathroom they use. These students will often hold it in, reduce their intake of liquids, or even avoid school altogether. The least we educators can do is provide space for privacy and acceptance in moments when some are at their most vulnerable.
I’d argue that until we - the educators, the adults, the parents - prioritize this as an issue, our schools can never claim to be truly welcoming to all. We simply never know what struggles face our students, or where their secret pain lies.
That healing and welcoming can all start with our bathrooms. Bathrooms as a teaching tool and an extension of our school mission. Bathrooms as a teachable moment. Bathrooms as a statement of inclusivity and welcoming. Bathrooms as a way of saying, “I see you - you are welcome here.” Bathrooms as a way of stating that our genders are only part of what makes us who we are - and they certainly do not define who does or does not belong.
When my children were in preschool (through kindergarten, really) they didn’t think twice about using the bathroom with their classmates. As I was driving my youngest (currently in second grade) to school the other day, I brought up the subject of school bathrooms. I asked her how she would feel if tomorrow, when she walked into school, every bathroom in her school was available to everyone. She laughed (maybe at the absurdity of the question? Sometimes I must sound so old to her…) and said, “Ima - why would it even matter?”
She’s too young to understand the multi-layered transgender, non-binary issues that complicate the issue for many adults. But she gets it on its most simple, elementary level. I wonder, as she grows up and assimilates the cultural information and gender biases around her, which way she’ll choose to turn her “E” when given the chance.
**Navah Kelman Becker is the Director of Programming at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University. Prior to her current position, she directed the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) for ten years. Navah has been a Jewish educator - mostly in California - for over three decades. She thinks of herself as a lifelong learner, and is fascinated by moments of Flow at the intersection of formal and informal education.