March 25, 2013— -- An Oregon high school installed separate unisex bathrooms, giving a "third option" to its students, including those who identify as transgender, a school official said.
Grant High School in Portland took six existing bathrooms -- four for students and two for staff -- and turned them into unisex bathrooms, outfitting them with locks on the inside and "unisex" signs on the door. No one is required to use the new bathrooms that are open to all students.
Before, students who identified as transgender and who expressed concerns about the bathrooms, could request a key to a staff bathroom, according to the student-run Grant magazine, which first reported the story.
Kristyn Westphal, who is one of Grant's two vice principals and who has been there for one year, said the project was put into motion in January, and it took about a month to assess for code and changes. The changes, which Westphal said cost "a few hundred dollars," were finished about three weeks ago.
Of the 1,600 students at the school, Westphal said the number of those who are "out" as transgender was "somewhere in the neighborhood of 10."
"Some of our gay and lesbian students said they were appreciative and more comfortable going into a different bathroom," she said.
Westphal said the idea to change the bathrooms came from the school's student-support team, which includes school counselors, the school psychologist and the vice principals.
In one of their bi-monthly meetings, Westphal said the counselors said that some LGBT students had expressed concerns about the bathrooms, saying they didn't feel comfortable or didn't feel safe using the bathrooms.
Westphal said she hadn't heard of a particular incident of a student made to feel unsafe, but she had been told about a student who was trying to avoid drinking liquid all day so he wouldn't have to use the bathroom at school.
Scott Morrison, a 17-year-old senior at Grant who was born female but now identifies as male, told The Oregonian newspaper that he would avoid drinking anything during the school day because having to chose between a boys or girls bathroom caused him anxiety and fear.
But now, he told the newspaper, he no longer has that problem, saying, "you don't even have to think about it, and that's great."
Nationwide, almost 82 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, while more than 38 percent reported being physically harassed and roughly 18 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in 2011 because of their sexual orientation, according to a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) National School Climate Survey.
LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in certain school spaces, with almost 39 percent of those students citing bathrooms specifically, the study said.
Sixteen states and Washington, D.C., have laws and policies that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but the legislation varies state by state.
In 2007, the Oregon state legislature passed the Oregon Equality Act, which forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in several "critical areas," including public school education. Under Oregon law, gender identity includes what a person believes his or her gender to be and how that person chooses to express his or her gender.
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that, nationwide, the number of high school-aged students who identify with being transsexual -- people who want to or will transition from one sex or another, and not necessarily do it with medical help (hormones, surgery) -- is about one-third of 1 percent.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the organization, praised Grant's decision to create unisex bathrooms, calling it a "smart and compassionate" move for the transgender students.
"Any school worth its salt wants to be a safe place and welcoming place for every student," Keisling said. "It's really great. They came up with a really good common-sense solution."
But, Keisling pointed out, lots of public areas, including malls and airports, have started installing unisex bathrooms for all sorts of people, including those with disabilities or certain health issues and those who are caring for someone of a different sex -- such as a mother with a young son -- and not just for the LGBT community.
When asked whether she thought the separate bathrooms at Grant would increase the stigma around transgender students, she said, "There is always going to be people who don't like transgender people or who don't understand trans-people, but you have to really go fishing to find something wrong with this."
At the beginning of the 2012 school year, Portland Public Schools' general counsel Jollee Patterson sent school administrators guidelines about how to handle transgender issues, including bathrooms.
"This (bathroom) issue requires us to consider the need to support our transgender students, while also doing our best to ensure the safety and comfort of all students," she wrote. "In no case shall a transgender student be required to use a bathroom that conflicts with the student's gender identity."
At Grant, the six bathrooms are spread throughout campus, including one in the weight room, and any student is allowed to use the unisex bathrooms.
"This is just a third option," Westphal said.
Grant was the first in its school district to create a different bathroom as a result of concerns raised by some of their transgender students and, overall, students and parents have welcomed the idea, Westphal said. After hearing about Grant, another school in the Tigard-Tualatin school district said they were interested in doing the same thing.
"The only reaction I've heard there has been positive," she said. "We have a pretty accepting school system."
When asked whether she was surprised by all of the national attention the new bathrooms were receiving, Westphal laughed.
"It is kind of funny because it's such a simple thing," she said. "It was very simple to do, and it's something as pretty basic as a human right."