A Sign Of The Times: Lessons From A Bathroom Sign At UNC

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UNC Campus Y

Tuesday, the academic year commenced at UNC-Chapel Hill. The University was bustling again as 40,000 students ranged across campus. Long lines of them gathered at the Old Well to drink deep from its waters, hoping that they were gulping down academic success. The day quivered with hope and expectations for a new year.

The second day of classes, this façade was shattered. The University decided to make clear that, whatever hope and expectations exist for the future here, they are defined as being primarily cisgendered.

The issue emerged because of an exchange of bathroom signage.

The Campus Y had installed gender-inclusive signs for their single-occupancy bathrooms. This signage embraces the inclusive policies adopted by the representative bodies of the University and the promise made by President Spellings to abide by our non-discrimination policy and not enforce House Bill 2.

But, on Wednesday, Facilities Services ripped the signs down and replaced them, leaving behind a damaged wall and, intentionally or not, a statement about who is and is not welcomed at this University.

Ironically, as stated by the official UNC page, this sign debacle is actually part of an attempt by the University to increase the number and visibility of single-occupancy, gender-neutral restrooms because of House Bill 2. They stated that the sign choice was dependent upon federal recommendations, along with other considerations, like recognizable international symbols. The initiative itself is admirable.

Yet, signs tell stories. They map out the boundaries of ownership and accessibility, of history and belonging, and, taken as a whole, form a narrative.

Unfortunately, the narrative the University is currently writing on its walls is one of exclusion.

The sign adopted by the Campus Y bore a pictogram widely recognized as inclusive of all identities and wording indicating the restroom was open to all gender identities and gender expressions. Its replacement lacks equivalent symbolism in either pictogram or word.

What is left of inclusivity then?

The scars from the forcible and violent removal of the Campus Y’s original signs.

In the University’s sign choice, one cannot help but see an attempt at remaining neutral on the issue of House Bill 2. However, performing neutrality by removing inclusivity does not appear to be neutral. In a state embroiled in a discussion over transgender rights, the choice to replace an inclusive sign with a neutral sign becomes erasure. It erases the message that all Tar Heels are welcome at UNC. It erases the visibility and presence of transgender persons on campus—a part of normalization in a cisgendered-dominated community. And, it erases the hope and promise embodied in our continued declarations that “we are not this.”

The UNC community is inclusive and welcoming. We need to make sure that our facilities continue to be reflective of these values, from the name on the building to the signs next to the bathroom doors.

Thoughts on UNC’s response to HB2? Tweet the author @Man_and_Trowel.