A view of a toilet in one of the all-gender bathrooms at Berkeley High. The toilet paper holder has fallen off the wall.
The all-student bathroom in the G building at Berkeley High. The Berkeley High campus has three gender-neutral bathrooms, each consisting of just a single stall. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Over five years ago, the Berkeley school district added gender-neutral bathrooms to schools across the district. But students say that those bathrooms are frequently locked or unusable at Berkeley High and insufficient at other schools in the district.

And nonbinary and transgender students, who often struggle to find an adequate place to go, are calling on the district to improve and increase the number of gender-neutral bathrooms.

While some states have passed laws regulating the use of bathrooms, California is moving in the opposite direction. A bill making its way through the state legislature could require all California schools to add gender-neutral bathrooms by 2025.

In some ways, Berkeley has been at the forefront of making schools inclusive. But difficulty accessing gender-neutral bathrooms has still taken a physical and psychological toll, students say.

Some don’t drink water to avoid having to use the bathroom at school. Some resort to heading off-campus to the public library or coffee shops. Some use male or female bathrooms that don’t align with their gender. A few use gendered bathrooms that do but are shamed by peers or adults who say they’re in the wrong place. For some, the line outside the gender-neutral bathroom, or the time it takes to get there, causes them to miss class.

The all-student bathroom in Berkeley High’s G building. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“You just feel so invisible and so unwelcome when you’re walking down the hallway and looking around and seeing that there’s not a bathroom that you can use,” said James, a transgender senior at Berkeley High, who would return to class with a full bladder after not finding a bathroom he felt comfortable in. (Berkeleyside is withholding James’ last name because he doesn’t want an online record outing him as transgender.)

James, who transitioned a few years ago, said the gendered bathrooms at the high school are not an option for him. As a teenage boy, it’s inappropriate for him to use the girls bathroom, he said. But as someone who can be perceived as a girl, he worries about sexual harassment in the boys bathroom. When his school’s three gender-neutral bathrooms (each with just a single stall) are not usable, he feels caught between risking harassment and going into a bathroom that doesn’t align with his gender-identity. 

Icons denoting the girls and boys bathrooms at Berkeley High. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

It’s a struggle that James, president of Berkeley High’s Alliance of Gender Expansive Students, said many students like him face. One survey found that 45% of LGBTQ students nationwide avoid gendered bathrooms in schools because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

While some transgender students feel comfortable using bathrooms that align with their gender identity, others don’t. The problem also affects students who are nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or cisgender but mistaken for the opposite gender.

“I don’t feel comfortable entering these bathrooms because of this two genders thing. I don’t feel 100% girl or 100% boy,” a 4th grade student wrote in a testimonial read aloud at a May school board meeting.

Every school in the district has a gender-neutral bathroom, but experiences vary. Since they’re not in every building, a trek across campus is often required. At Longfellow Middle School, the gender-neutral bathroom is in the office, which students said can be embarrassing. At Malcolm X Elementary, Eloui, a nonbinary student, started a petition a few years ago to add a gender-neutral bathroom to the schoolyard, which didn’t go anywhere.

Locker rooms pose a challenge, too. At King Middle School, nonbinary and transgender students used a janitor’s closet for a changing room until it was converted. At Berkeley High, students often avoid taking physical education classes that would require them to change into gym clothes.

Of course, high school bathrooms in general are not exactly known for their cleanliness. At Berkeley High, they are often clogged, dirty, vandalized, or being used by students vaping, students say. 

But the problem is more acute in the single-stall bathrooms; since they offer a rare slice of privacy behind a locked door, competition can be steep. They’re attractive to students looking for a quiet place to escape bullying, do drugs or just scroll TikTok on their phone. 

Some teachers say there also aren’t enough staff bathrooms for every teacher who needs to use one between classes, though some still loan their staff bathroom keys to trans or nonbinary students.

California first required that students be given the right to use bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity in 2013, the same year that Berkeley Unified enacted a policy protecting transgender students from harassment and discrimination. A more comprehensive policy passed in 2020.

In that time, Berkeley Unified has become more accepting. Schools have made it easier for students to change their name and gender in school records. Elementary school teachers incorporate lessons on being inclusive of LGBTQ peers. More students than ever are coming out as gender expansive or gender queer, though some students say they continue to face transphobia. 

But bathrooms have remained a sticking point.

“This has been something that I’ve been personally bringing up to administration for over 20 years, since I had my first out student in the early 2000s who told me that he didn’t go to the bathroom at school and was having health issues because of it,” said Miriam Stahl, a teacher at Berkeley High since 1995. “If anything, it’s getting worse, because, as the years go on, there’s a higher percentage of nonbinary and trans kids.” 

The lack of sufficient bathroom access creates logistical and psychological challenges for gender nonconforming youth. Data science and math teacher Laura Gorrin, who goes by Mx. Gorrin and advises the gender expansive student club, said worrying about where they are going to use the bathroom leaves students distracted and makes it harder to focus on learning.

Parent Marie Freeman’s daughter missed more days of school than usual while she was exploring her gender identity. “[It was] all the little things adding up,” Freeman said. Just going to the bathroom and changing for gym class layered on top of hurtful comments from students.

“Our kids living in fear of being misgendered or who have to misgender themselves to access facilities are at risk of a range of mental health issues like self harm and depression,” said Kris Stangle, the parent of two transgender kids who is involved with an advocacy group called Gender Inclusive Schools Alliance.

“The bathrooms are not the pinnacle,” he said. “The bathrooms are the basement, and we’re just trying to get out of the basement so we can deal with everything else.”

Rosa Parks Elementary’s ‘seamless’ transition to having mostly gender-neutral bathrooms

The exterior of the elementary school, with students gathered round
Rosa Parks Elementary School in 2021. File photo: Pete Rosos

Rosa Parks Elementary finished converting six of its eight gendered bathrooms to gender-neutral in 2018, the only school in the district to do this. (Washington Elementary also has a few multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms.)

Beginning with a survey in 2015, a team of teachers worked with then-principal Paco Furlan to convert one set of bathrooms each year until all of the grades had gender-neutral bathrooms. 

Over several years, the teachers worked with two outside consultants to conduct professional development for staff, developed a list of frequently asked questions to address concerns and educated students about appropriate ways to use the bathrooms.

Brook Pessin-Whedbee, a Rosa Parks teacher who helped spearhead the effort, said the change was a non-issue for cisgender students and made a huge difference for those who are nonbinary and transgender, including her own children.

“They are regular kids and they didn’t want to have to stand out,” Pessin-Whedbee said. “They don’t want to have to hold it or feel uncomfortable in the bathroom or have someone ask them ‘Why are they in this bathroom?’… Everybody could have access to a bathroom and not have to worry about it, not have to sit in class thinking when can I go?” 

Aiming to provide access for everyone and restrictions for no one, the teachers intentionally left one set of gendered bathrooms for students who preferred to use boys or girls bathrooms.

They introduced gender-neutral bathrooms in first grade and continued them each year after. The transition was “seamless,” Pessin-Whedbee said. “They just said to the kids, you can use this one or you can use that one, and the kids didn’t know any different and they said, ‘OK.’”

Since then, Pessin-Whedbee said staff from several other schools in the district have approached her to explain how Rosa Parks made the change, but their interest has never gotten off the ground. 

‘Just give us a place where we can take a piss’

View of a school hallway with two bathroom doors and a waterfountain between them
The all-student bathroom in Berkeley High’s G building is next to a staff bathroom. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

While students at several schools say they struggle with accessing appropriate bathrooms, the problems are especially difficult at Berkeley High, where there are just three gender-neutral toilets for a school of 3,000 students. (California Plumbing Code requires that there be one toilet for every 30 girls, one toilet for every 50 boys and one urinal for every 100 boys.)

In the fall, two reporters at the Berkeley High Jacket student newspaper investigated the conditions in the gender-neutral bathrooms and their impact on students. Eliot Hertensein, a senior, created an open-source tool to report and track the conditions of the gender-neutral bathrooms, using QR codes posted outside the bathrooms. The bathrooms were reported locked or unusable 57 times since November.

Jasmina Viteskic, the district’s Title IX Coordinator who sits on the newly formed Gender Equity and Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, said the district has a legal obligation to ensure equal access to bathrooms.

“You cannot put a child that wants to use a gender neutral-restroom in a different position than a kid that can use a gendered restroom,” Viteskic said.

The district’s current approach to address the problem, she said, is to work with facilities to make sure the existing gender-neutral bathrooms remain unlocked, usable and easily accessible.

When buildings are renovated, they get additional gender-neutral bathrooms, Viteskic said. 

Multiple Berkeley High students said that bathrooms became more accessible toward the end of the school year, but that some still seemed to be locked more often than not. Other problems, common to other bathrooms at Berkeley High, persisted, like empty or broken dispensers for soap, menstrual products and paper towels.

Members of the Gender Inclusive Schools Alliance say the additional bathrooms in the renovation plans don’t go far enough to provide sufficient facilities. At Berkeley High, members of the group are asking for portable bathrooms to be installed on campus.

“In the short term, I’m not even kidding, I would settle for them getting some porta potties in there,” James said. “Just give us a place where we can take a piss on campus. That’s all I’m asking for.” 

In the long run, trans and nonbinary students say they would like to see the school convert a few gendered bathrooms to multi-stall gender-neutral ones. Installing stall doors that extend down to the floor would help, too.

Viteskic said the district has to contend with state rules that make implementing large-scale changes to the bathrooms difficult. 

She pointed to California Plumbing Code, which does not include specifications for nonbinary students. She also said that building rules require that a building be brought entirely up to code during even a small renovation project, which can turn a $100,000 project into a multi-million dollar one.

“It’s very easy to hide behind California Plumbing Code,” Viteskic said. But she said the district is committed to coming up with creative solutions. 

Some parent advocates say district leaders have always responded with sympathetic concern, but have fallen short on action.

School board director Jennifer Shanoski said she thinks district leaders should turn to state rules to get at the root of the problem.

“I do think that there is an opportunity for advocacy here, and that Berkeley could be at the forefront of changing some of those laws that exist that are antiquated. They don’t really acknowledge the need for gender-neutral bathrooms,” Shanoski said.

James said he will continue to pressure the district to improve access to gender-neutral bathrooms at school. 

“My God, why do I have to fight to be able to go to the restroom at my own school?” he asked. “But I do have to fight for it. And I’m going to keep fighting with everything in me. Because if I can make it better in any way, for the students to come after me, then it’s all worth it.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...