There is a bathroom you might not know about in the Humanities and Social Sciences building at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It is at the end of the hall by the P.O.D. market, behind an unmarked door. It doesn't have a label. Not even a number to call it by.
This bathroom, half-hidden, is one of Alex Dowd’s favorites on campus. Dowd is a senior studying ecology. He identifies as a transgender man and is the president of Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (oSTEM).
oSTEM is an organization with chapters around the country. Dowd was a founding officer of the UT chapter and has since taken over its presidency.
Talking about his bathroom experiences, Dowd leaned forward, grinning.
“First of all, there's a bathroom that I love that … most other people don't know about,” Dowd said.
His beloved bathroom, the unmarked one in HSS, is almost always empty, which Dowd thinks is due to the fact almost no one knows it is there.
It is not the only gender-neutral bathroom on campus that is slightly hidden. There is one on the first floor of the Student Union, in an alcove-like hallway behind the gendered bathrooms. Dowd described it as a tunnel.
These bathrooms and their strange placements were a part of the information Donna Braquet compiled. She used that information to push for better gender-neutral bathrooms.
Braquet is a librarian at UT, and was the original director of the Pride Center until 2016, when the center was defunded by the state legislature. The center reopened in fall 2016 supported by private funding.
Braquet has spent her years at UT helping to push for progress. Part of that work was pushing for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Braquet began asking around about them and was given a list that was supposed to detail all gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.
With the list, Braquet hunted down the bathrooms. Working with others at the Pride Center, she trekked around campus to find them and report back.
Her findings illuminated issues with the accessibility of many bathrooms. Some were behind locked doors, some only available to faculty or inaccessible for people with disabilities. Some were single stalls but had gendered markers on the door.
The phrase “gender neutral” is not used across campus to mark these bathrooms. Some bathrooms have signs which say “all gender” and others are still marked as family bathrooms. Braquet suggested this is partly to do with the stigma surrounding the trans community. Even now there are several restrooms labeled family restrooms, although many have been changed over to “all gender.”
The bathroom in HSS used to have a sign, Dowd said, but has not for the past few years. It disappeared sometime after he started college and has not been replaced.
In 2018, the Association of American Universities conducted a survey of 181,752 students across 33 universities. 1.7% of respondents identified themselves in one of the following categories: trans woman, trans man, nonbinary or genderqueer, questioning or not listed.
Applying that number to UT, that would be almost 500 students.
Without gender-neutral bathrooms, these students put themselves at risk. When Dowd is unable to find a gender-neutral bathroom, he will use a gendered one. In order to maintain safety, he goes through a series of actions to protect himself, like reorienting his body language to seem more masculine.
"If I'm walking and there's someone at the urinal, and they start to turn around, I sort of like, look the other way and like do this,"Dowd said, demonstrating by sticking his hand in his hair, his head turned down and away. "To, like, cover my face a little bit. Just in general doing a lot of covert things.”
Dowd will also avoid speaking, so the pitch of his voice won’t give him away.
Ciara Gazaway, bias education coordinator in the office of the Dean of Students, used to work in the Pride Center as a graduate student. She says she knew students who would plan their day around using the bathroom. They would go to the Pride Center to use its gender-neutral bathrooms when they passed.
“In terms of these restrooms, these are places that affirm identity,” Gazaway said. “A function of every single human being … that they can do that and feel comfortable, not have to hide or be ashamed of who they are. ”
Dowd hopes that people will continue using the HSS bathroom.
“After we came back from COVID I was worried it would be, like, a lost bathroom. But I want to spread the word because I love that bathroom,” Dowd said. “Knowledge of it is going extinct as people graduate.”
Dowd has tried putting up his own signs in the past, but they don’t stay up for long. For now, the bathroom continues to be maintained and is used by those who know it is there.