SPECIAL REPORT: The Bathroom Battle

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It’s a highly charged issue impacting every public school in the state of New York - gender-neutral bathrooms.

In ‘The Bathroom Battle, Part Two’ the Turn to Tara investigative team went to PrideWorks, the annual conference for LGBTQ Youth and their Allies, to discuss bathroom access in public schools.

MORE: SPECIAL REPORT: ‘The Bathroom Battle Part One’ investigates gender-neutral bathrooms

PrideWorks, the largest gathering of its kind for LGBTQ youth in the tri-state area, was held at Pace University and hosted 550 participants from 70 schools and 10 colleges. The conference offered a chance to speak up on a highly charged, polarizing topic that Rye High School senior Saylor Pemble says is often brushed aside. “Going to the bathroom is something that everyone is able to do and should be able to do freely without judgment or harassment.”

Pemble, was reacting to data uncovered during a monthslong Turn to Tara investigation that revealed 20 percent of Westchester school districts, eight out of 40, are not equipped with designated gender-neutral bathrooms.  Schools without facilities often require students to trek to facilities in the staff or nurses’ offices.  

Rye High School added one private, single-stall bathroom last year, but Pemble says she's painfully aware how tricky it can be to navigate bathroom access.

“It was really stressful, at least for me. Especially in like middle school when I was still figuring out myself. I was like afraid to go to the girls bathroom.”

Pemble adds that the last thing anyone wants to do is call attention to have to use a restroom. “It’s the embarrassment factor, like coming in late and then you feel bad. You shouldn’t have to feel bad for going to bathroom.”

Emma Lievman, from Hendrick Hudson High School, identifies as straight but came to the conference as an ally. "Some of the people in school, you think they are so different than you, but they are really not. I think that's important that people understand that just because somebody might have a different sexual preference than you or wears a different color than you do, they are just a human being."

Lievman says she is frustrated by what she sees on her own campus in regard to bathroom access. "Right now I think they have to go the nurse’s office. If I'm in the middle math class, I'm not going to go all the way to the nurse's office. I just want to go the bathroom. I feel terrible that a lot of students have to struggle with this and not use [the] bathroom of their choice."

But there are millions of other Americans who believe just as passionately that it's a bad idea to let students use the bathroom of their choice.

The Turn to Tara investigative team recently conducted a poll over social media, and out of the 287 people who participated, 68 percent voted that a student's gender at birth, and not the gender they identify with, should be the deciding the factor of what bathroom a person should use.  One person posted, “Men and women, just as God created and we've been practicing forever.” Another person commented, “Anything else is denying science.”

But for PrideWorks keynote speaker and “Ugly Betty” star Michael Urie he sees it as a civil rights issue. “It's a form of discrimination...it’s a major stain on our country, our history, where we separated people by bathrooms. A person who identifies should be able to use bathroom of their choosing. Bathrooms really should be neutral.”

Video: "The Bathroom Battle" Extended interviews:

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