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Group Wants Transgender Bathrooms for UMass

Transgendered students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, unable to persuade administrators in the past year to create coed bathrooms, are shifting their strategy from private talks with school officials to a petition drive and mass mobilization.

The Restroom Revolution group, as students are calling themselves, will meet Wednesday to gauge student response to its campaign to create coed bathrooms, which they say are needed to help transgendered students - who exhibit the appearance and behavioral characteristics of the opposite sex - feel safe from ridicule and physical harm.

''Transgendered students have nowhere to go to the bathroom on campus,'' said Mitch Boucher, 33, a PhD candidate organizing the campaign. ''We decided we needed to put on more pressure.''

About 30 Restroom Revolution activists, including leaders of gay and transgendered advocacy groups, met earlier this month and announced their new focus.

Activists said they began meeting with UMass-Amherst administrators last year to discuss the issue. Students said one of their members received an e-mail in May from Paul Vasconcellos, assistant dean of students, promising he would ''look to create gender-free bathrooms in two residence halls,'' including the Prince and Crampton dormitories.

But Barbara Pitoniak, a university spokeswoman, said she had no knowledge of the e-mail and that Vasconcellos did not have the authority to make such a promise. He is currently on sick leave.

Although negotiations have stalled, university officials say they remain open to further talks and have not ruled out coed bathrooms.

For now, though, complaints from transgendered students will continue to be handled on a ''case-by-case'' basis as administrators work to accommodate the ''very small group'' of students who feel uncomfortable using either male or female lavatories, Pitoniak said.

Citing budget constraints and state building codes that require a minimum number of female and male bathroom facilities in campus buildings, UMass-Amherst has no plans for a campuswide solution, Pitoniak said.

State building codes do not sanction coed bathroom facilities, according to Joe Peluso, executive director of the state Board of Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters.

Rules governing dorm restrooms say ''bathroom facilities for males and females should be separate and so designated.''

''It's not legal,'' Peluso said.

But coed bathrooms can be found in the dorms of some local universities, and in some cases students have been allowed to redesignate bathrooms on their floor. At Hampshire College in Amherst, bathrooms in student ''mods'' (apartment-style suites) have been coed since the school opened in 1970. Amherst College allows students on a dormitory floor to designate their bathrooms coed, said Paul Statt, director of media relations.

And at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, undergraduates can voluntarily create coed facilities, said Scott Chesney, director of residential life.

Although many schools lack an official policy toward transgendered students, some schools have specifically altered housing policies in response to their demands. At the University of Minnesota, for example, transgendered students are housed in private apartments, or located ''in close proximity to the bathroom they identify with,'' said Mannix Clark, director of Housing and Residential Life.

But at UMass-Amherst the prospects remain uncertain. Efforts to raise awareness of transgendered concerns led to sensitivity training sessions for adult dorm staff and student residential assistants this past summer that will now be conducted annually.

''It's an issue that concerned my residents, so it concerned me,'' said Edward F. Kammerer, a 23-year-old senior and former resident assistant who lived next to five transgendered students last year.

He was inspired to join the Restroom Revolution group. ''We're trying to show we have the support of the campus as a whole, students and faculty,'' Kammerer said.

But Stephen Pereira, assistant director of the Stonewall Center, a campus resource facility for gay, bisexual, and transgendered students, believes that until the campus community learns more about transgendered students, mobilizing broad-based support may be difficult.

''There's varying degrees of support,'' he said.

While the debate continues, transgendered students caught using a bathroom designated for the opposite sex can be charged with a violation of the code of conduct and subject to disciplinary action.

''We are in full support of these students, but we don't have the authority to change the bathroom policy,'' Pereira said. ''It's been a struggle.''

This story ran on page C13 of the Boston Globe on 10/20/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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