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A set of bathrooms in the lower part of Maucker Union were open as gender neutral for the day on Thursday.

MATTHEW PUTNEY / Courier Photo Editor

CEDAR FALLS | A gathering of University of Northern Iowa students were not carrying cleverly-worded signs. Nor were they chanting phrases echoing through Maucker Union.

So passersby could be forgiven for mistaking the gathering for something other than a protest.

The students, members of the UNI Proud, were advocating for gender-neutral bathrooms on Thursday on campus.

In a way, it’s fitting they were not so conspicuous.

That’s because if the advocates can add more than one approved gender-neutral bathroom, few students on campus will notice the changes.

“It’s changing a sign on the door,” said Steven Sanchez, 22, a transgender senior who was last year’s UNI homecoming queen. “Literally, nothing changes.”

Sanchez means nothing changes physically with gender-neutral restrooms -- they would have the same facilities expected in any other bathroom, and can be interchangeable with family-friendly bathrooms.

But Sanchez had already explained the emotional impact the bathrooms can have on students or staff members who are gender-questioning.

He describes the confusion a questioning student may feel, if for example, he is not clean-shaven but sporting high heels.

“Going to the bathroom is such a basic function,” said Viet Le, 22, director of media relations with UNI Proud, before telling a story of the stares a friend faced when walking into a gender-specific bathroom. “I think when people go to the bathroom, they don’t want that.”

Le laid out another benefit, portraying a story of a daughter who has to help her elderly father use the restroom. While it may not be a situation that occurs often on campus, the UNI Proud students have a multitude of reasons why anyone can benefit from bathrooms open to anyone.

The protest, at the bathrooms outside the Maucker Union ballrooms, was also more low-key, because part of the aim was to explain to students why gender-neutral bathrooms are necessary and show students the differences.

One student looked quizzically at the sign announcing the gender-neutral bathrooms. As he started heading for the men’s room, UNI Proud President Stormy O’Brink told him he can use either restroom.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he showed the flexibility and unisex nature of bathrooms by opting for the traditionally female restroom.

O’Brink made clear there’s still a role on campus for gender-specific bathrooms, for those men and women who are most comfortable using facilities open only to their specific gender.

O’Brink had another reason for the understated nature of the protest: the college has already consented to placing full-time a gender-neutral bathroom in Maucker Union as part of an already-planned renovation in the facility.

“It’s like a party-protest,” O’Brink described the atmosphere at the event.

O’Brink said passersby so far had only positive things to say about adding gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

Though it was less of a protest, O’Brink said the group is not content to rest with their success. She said UNI Proud wants more than a single bathroom in one on-campus building.

Some gender-neutral bathrooms exist in dorm rooms, and Sanchez said he is working on getting more of them in dorms and also gender-neutral dorm rooms.

“This is one of the first major things coming out of the (LGBT) Center, and it shows why having the center here is such a big deal,” Sanchez said.

The gender-neutral bathroom protest fits with this year’s Pride Week theme of fluidity and inclusivity. Events continue today and Saturday.

For more details, go to the website http://uniproud.tumblr.com/prideweek2014.

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Political Reporter

Political reporter at the Courier

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