State Approves Permanent Variance for Gender-Neutral Bathrooms at UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass.—Following a yearlong pilot program on campus, the state plumbing board has granted a permanent variance allowing the University of Massachusetts Amherst to keep two multi-stall bathrooms in Baker Residence Hall gender-inclusive.

The bathrooms, both on the first floor of the five-floor dormitory, serve a gender-inclusive housing option in the north wing of the building and the Spectrum: LGBTQIA+ Student Community in the south wing.

In 2017, the university formally requested the variance to serve “an underrepresented population on campus whose needs we are not able to meet on campus because of plumbing code requirements.”

The Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters granted a one-year variance for the two converted bathrooms in October 2017 under the condition that the university report back to the board upon conclusion of the pilot. After reviewing the report, which found no negative, retaliatory or discriminatory issues reported in or around the bathrooms and that students on the first floor wanted to keep them gender-inclusive, the board granted the permanent variance on Oct. 3.

Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life, said, “We are delighted to be able to provide these facilities on a permanent basis for the safety and comfort of our students, and we are thankful for the support of Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and the thorough and thoughtful consideration given by the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters. Working with the board, we have again been able to demonstrate the university’s commitment to maintaining a safe and inclusive learning environment for all.” 

The university’s report to the board included responses by first-floor residents to questions about the positive impact of the Spectrum Community having gender-inclusive bathrooms; whether having a gender-inclusive bathroom created challenges for the community; and why student thought having a gender-inclusive bathroom is important?

Students repeatedly reported increased feelings of safety, and reduced anxiety using the gender-inclusive bathrooms. They found no challenges using them, other than a “feeling of awkwardness sometimes’; and overwhelmingly found the bathrooms important in reducing daily stress for transgender and gender non-conforming people “because college is stressful enough without having to worry about where to go to the bathroom.”

The university’s final report to the board included a letter of support from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, vice chancellor for Administration and Finance Andrew P. Mangels, and Gelaye. 

Other letters of support included those from State Representative Solomon Goldstein-Rose and candidate for 3rd Hampshire district in the Massachusetts House of Representatives Mindy Domb; Dawn M. Bond, director of Residential Life student services, and Jean Ahlstrand MacKimmie, director of residence education; Genny Beeman and Crystal Nieves of the Stonewall Center; and Lou Purington and Oliver Kelly of the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy.