Jones Library panel planning all-gender bathroom

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-12-2023 2:08 PM

AMHERST — In an effort to accommodate the widest range of patrons, and limit lines during public events such as after-hour meetings and Burnett Art Gallery openings, the expanded and renovated Jones Library is expected to do away with bathrooms labeled by gender.

With plans for an all-gender multi-stall restroom on the building’s garden level, the outreach subcommittee for the Jones Library Building Committee is getting community input through both a survey and an online forum, scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Jones Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre, who leads the Outreach Subcommittee, said the design of this restroom will be crucial, as people don’t want it to feel like separate women’s and men’s bathrooms.

“What we’re learning from a lot of people is if I have to choose which way to go, that’s not comfortable,” Lefebvre said at the building committee meeting on Thursday.

Plans for the building project show restrooms on the first, second, and third floors will be for single occupants, but on the garden level, with the art gallery, exhibit area for special collections and the room for the Civil War tablets, a multi-stall restroom will be necessary to serve the community spaces.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said designs by Finegold Alexander Architects are showing walls that may have to be removed to open up the common areas of the restroom, while providing larger, full privacy stalls for users. “My ultimate comment is this is something we don’t want to get wrong,” Sharry said.

With help from the library’s Equity, Justice and Inclusion Subcommittee, the Outreach Subcommittee put together the survey, and also spoke to representatives of the Sexuality and Gender Alliance Club at the high school, the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts and other organizations, including Translate Gender and TransHealth, both based in Northampton.

The survey is available online at https://bit.ly/3WW1NY5, or in paper form at the Jones and the branch libraries.

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The survey states that “all-user restrooms benefit the widest range of people, including parents with children of a different gender, people with disabilities who may require the accompaniment of an attendant of a different gender, and transgender and gender-diverse people.”

A national organization called Stalled! is also cited in the survey. Its mission “is a direct response to the moral panic triggered by court cases seeking to overturn President Obama’s Title IX protections guaranteeing trans individuals access to sex-segregated public toilets that align with their gender identity.”

Even with the all-gender, multi-stall idea, building committee member Christine Gray-Mullen said she would like to see a single-occupancy family bathroom on the garden level, observing that the library’s large population of users 65 and older may be hesitant to use an all-gender restroom.

“I still feel very strongly about having a single-occupancy family bathroom on that garden level so we do get it right and so everybody has an option to feel comfortable when going the bathroom,” Gray-Mullen said.

Because the all-gender bathrooms can have stalls that offer more privacy to users, Sharry said she and library staff understand that sex, drugs and alcohol, problems that often have to be addressed in the library building, will remain a challenge. But staff is supportive of the more inclusive bathroom design.

“The staff are coming from a place this where they want to protect everybody and make everybody feel safe,” Sharry said.

“I think there’s going to absolutely be no way to please everyone with this decision,” said George Hicks-Richard, the library’s facilities supervisor. “I think it’s going to come down to what is the best compromise that is going to make the most people happy and make them the most safe and comfortable.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said having the more expansive restroom with private stalls could raise the cost of the building project, even with challenges already posed by inflation. “There are some things we need to think about as we move down that road,” Bockelman said.

As of the committee meeting’s meeting last week, the survey had 48 responses to questions asking participants if they ever used an all-gender, multi-stall restroom, what they liked or didn’t like about it, proposed options for the design of stalls, including maximum privacy, standard privacy or semi-private privacy, and features or design elements that should be included.

So far, the comments range from concern about having all genders share a bathroom to full support, and questions about whether urinals would be included.

“As a mother of a non-binary child and an advocate for all genders, I feel strongly that we should move beyond the notion of gender-specific restrooms. Amherst should lead on this,” one respondent wrote.

“Urinals are fine in an all-user restroom, but if including them please seclude them so all users don’t have to walk past them to get to the stalls,” reads a second comment.

“I’m really happy to see the library doing actionable things for gender inclusivity,” is a response from a proponent, while one questions the idea, writing, “a multi-stalled all-user restroom would be uncomfortable for me. I would hopefully get used to it.”

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