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Thursday, December 07, 2023

Florida’s new bathroom law prompts concern from UF students

The law requires people to only enter bathrooms aligned with assigned sex at birth

For Ryan Need, a UF Department of Materials Science and Engineering assistant professor, having a gender-inclusive restroom in their building on campus is a comfort.

“I'm lucky to have a unisex bathroom in my building, but it's upstairs,” they said. “So, if I'm in a rush, I'll use gendered facilities that are closer, but I don't like to.” 

A new Florida law makes that choice harder for queer UF students and faculty like Need.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1521 into law in May, and it became effective July 1. The bill, also known as the Safety in Private Spaces Act, introduces penalties for people using a public restroom or changing facility not aligned with their sex assigned at birth. 

Persons who enter certain restrooms or changing facilities and refuse to depart when asked to do so can be charged with trespass, according to the bill.

HB 1521 is meant to maintain “public safety, decency, decorum and privacy,” according to the bill’s text.

The Board of Governors must implement the bill into its state university regulations by Jan. 1, 2024. 

Members of the UF community think the bill makes bathrooms less safe.

The Queer Liberation Front, a coalition of queer and transgender students fighting for liberation at UF, held protests against the legislation and is working with campus officials to implement gender-inclusive bathrooms.

Erin Bischof, a member of the Queer Liberation Front, said the bill creates possibilities of violence and harassment against the trans and nonbinary community. 

“It is a very high priority for us because there is a very high risk involved,” Bischof said. “[Under the bill], people are empowered to enact vigilante violence on those they see using the ‘wrong restroom.’”

Bischof believes reporting suspected violators of the new bill could lead to conflict that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

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“If you see someone in the bathroom, mind your own business,” Bischof said. “If you're gonna try and report them, it's just going to escalate things. It makes things dangerous for everyone involved.”

Jonathan Stephens, president of the UF Pride Student Union, said the bill perpetuates harmful narratives surrounding the trans and nonbinary community.

“I think that this has just been a clearly consistent narrative within the Florida legislature to try to reduce transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming individuals to some sort of predators or sexual deviants,” they said.

Need, who is also the co-chair of the UF LGBTQ+ Presidential Advisory Committee, also believes HB 1521 puts the trans and nonbinary community at risk.

“Trans and gender non-conforming individuals face an increased risk of harassment, discrimination and even violence when forced to use restrooms that do not align with their gender identity,” Need said. “Thus, it is also a matter of safety and mental well-being for TGNC to be able to use facilities that affirm their identities.”

A 2016 study found 36 percent of trans youth subject to restroom and locker room restrictions have experienced sexual assault. 

Gabriel Murchison, a postdoctoral candidate at the Yale School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said the study only establishes an association between restroom restrictions and sexual assault among trans youth.

“But they are certainly a strong indicator of environments where kids are at risk,” Murchison told CNN in 2019.

In the past, the UF LGBTQ+ Presidential Advisory Committee made efforts to increase restroom accessibility for the UF trans and nonbinary community.

“Many buildings on campus do have single occupant bathrooms that are functionally gender-inclusive, but their labeling varies, and they aren't always easy to find,” Need said.

Tiffany Richards, a former LPAC member and director for UF LGBTQ Affairs, led an initiative cataloging single-stall restrooms across the UF campus.  

Richards helped create a partial map of UF’s gender-inclusive and single-stall restrooms. A beta version of the map is available through the Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity website

Need hopes the list will be added to the official UF campus map, they said. 

Efforts to complete the map stalled in 2022 after Richards left UF and former UF president Kent Fuchs announced his retirement.

“LPAC hopes to resume this effort soon with Dr. Sasse's support,” Need said.

Contact Garrett at Follow him @garrettshanley.

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Garrett Shanley

Garrett Shanley is a third-year journalism and history major and The Alligator's Fall 2023 university administration reporter. In his free time, Garrett can be found watching Wong Kar-Wai movies and brooding.

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