Guest essay: Equity, drug addiction, and the gender neutral bathroom


Cali Rose Karstad

Junior Cali Rose Karstad expressed their opinion on the gender-neutral bathrooms at Lincoln. They sat down with members of the Lincoln community to discuss the issue further.

In 2016, Lincoln High School became the first high school in Oregon to introduce a multi-stall gender neutral bathroom. Not only was this a major step for the rights of LGBTQ+ youth, but it showed how the queer community at Lincoln was being heard by their peers and the administration. The school, for what seemed like the first time, was on our side. They wanted the queer student body to feel safe in the restroom of their choosing. To this day, it is appreciated beyond words. 

I am a queer student at Lincoln. I prefer they/them pronouns and I date whoever makes me smile, gender not required. I am also someone who passes as a cisgender girl and could easily use the womens’ restroom. I have the privilege of not caring what bathroom I use due to my gender fluidity. Others do not. There are plenty of students at this school that are not comfortable with using a restroom that is gendered, and must use our gender neutral bathroom; whether it be for safety, comfort, or convenience. 

Now, seven years later, the bathroom has become one not for gender inclusivity and safety, but a hotspot for drugs, sexual activity, and cutting class. Students of all genders and sexualities, especially the queer community, have talked about how explicit and illegal activities requiring security guard intervention, are turning the bathroom into a space that is not private nor safe. Walking into a bathroom that was designed and fought for kids like me, only to be greeted by melon Vape smoke and a group of 10+ kids huddled together is not acceptable. 

At around the same time that I began conceptualizing this article, students and administration alike had been voicing their concerns regarding the abuse of the gender neutral bathroom. This article was originally to be an opinion piece; I am angry. I didn’t realize others were angry too – recognizing the same issues I was, and forming opinions on what was happening. I interviewed some key players in the resolution of this issue, such as Gail Gervais, the president of the LHS Gay/Straight Alliance and principal Peyton Chapman. I was also able to interview some students here at Lincoln who use the gender neutral bathroom. 

I first interviewed Gail Gervais (they/he). They’re a junior this year and president of the GSA. 

In simple terms, how would you define this issue?

The issue is that students are using the bathrooms for other activities other than… using the bathroom. They are, you know, vandalizing, using substances; there are rumors of a sexual assault allegation in there, which is terrifying.

As president of the Gay/Straight Alliance at Lincoln, how does the GSA feel about this issue?

I don’t believe that one person can speak for everyone, but mostly we just hope that people will respect that the gender neutral bathroom was a hard won battle for the queer community and students at Lincoln. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s being seen as a privilege rather than a right. Some students are putting the administration in a hard place with their actions, having to weigh between safety and students’ access to a bathroom. 

What is the big picture. Why does this matter? 

The big picture is that they were considering shutting down the bathroom. This would cut off access to a restroom during the day for any students who don’t feel comfortable in the mens and womens bathrooms at Lincoln. Having to go through the school day without using the bathroom sucks. There have been days before, when it has been locked at inopportune times, and students who have after school activities and athletics have been unable to use the restroom, and it really sucks! Because you then have to choose whether you honor your feelings or go into an uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situation. 

In your mind, what are the solutions to this problem, if there are any?

The big problem is that we really had a hard time coming up with solutions. A lot of attempts have been made to discourage the students from engaging in illegal activities in the bathroom, but it hasn’t worked. I feel like people, especially people our age, are developmentally in this self-centered place. It is so hard to reach people with the consequences of their actions. There’s this unfortunate intersection where some of those students in the gender neutral bathroom, doing these things [smoking, etc], are queer and open about it [their sexuality]. It feels like addiction, in my mind and in the healthcare community’s mind, is a disease; a disease that’s corrupted their ability to see the needs of others and the impact their behavior has on others. If I were braver, if I were willing to put my social life at risk, I would start confronting people about it. To be like, “Hey, do you understand that this is screwing everyone over? There are other bathrooms where you could do this, you could make this somebody else’s problem, but you’re choosing to congregate in here. That is a choice that’s hurting people.”  

Are there any specific enablers, or is it a pretty widespread issue?

There is definitely a recurring group of faces that I see; it is the same people, and that makes it almost more complicated. If it were just one person, or random people, it would be a different issue. It would be a, you know, an intervention with a specific individual or a larger understanding of a systemic issue. But, because it’s a group of these people it’s hard. And it is a systemic issue, there are so many people who don’t do it in the gender neutral bathroom. There are people who do it in the senior girls bathroom or the senior boys bathroom. It’s being portrayed as this issue where its’ only happening in the gender neutral bathroom, and that’s certainly not true. It’s just because there’s more space, so more people go there, and now it’s become this thing. When that one TikTok challenge went around, you know devious licks? Every bathroom was getting hit, except the gender neutral bathroom; I only use the gender neutral, and I didn’t see anything missing in there. That was like, the one space that was being left alone, and I wish people had that mindset for this. If you’re going to screw people over, don’t screw people over who are already being screwed over. They can’t just close this bathroom and give us another one because there is no other one. 

What’s your position on the role of the gender neutral bathroom?

I personally think that there should always be gender neutral bathrooms! I have had some really great experiences using public gender neutral bathrooms that aren’t aren’t oriented to a specific space like school. There were men and women and everybody else in there and it wasn’t a big deal, it was just a normal thing. It wasn’t even in a place where it’s common; it’s not common in Portland to find public gender neutral restrooms that are multi-stall. This particular experience was in Pioneer Square, and I didn’t even know it was a gender neutral bathroom when I went in there, but it was just not a big deal. There were so many people (it was a big restroom) and it wasn’t a thing. People just used the urinal stalls if they wanted or the other stalls if they wanted and it was like, not a big deal to have one [a gender neutral restroom]. I think that most restrooms could be converted into gender neutral restrooms. It’s just that people are scared. I think, to some extent, they’re scared of things that don’t happen. The same abuses that could (and do) happen in gender neutral bathrooms already happen in single sex bathrooms. The perpetrators are not the people that you think. 

Gail brought up some incredibly important points, such as a possible reason behind why the gender neutral bathroom is being used and how drug addiction is fogging students’ capacity for empathy. It’s not fair that a bathroom made for everyone is dividing us.

I needed another side of the story, one from kids who use this restroom and witness the same issues that are plaguing it. I asked each anonymous student one question: 

Why do people choose the gender neutral restroom, rather than other restrooms, to engage in illicit activities?

Student 1 (she/they): I think that it happens for a few reasons. One, location. It’s in Junior hall – close to a lot of classes and lockers. It’s convenient. Two, I think that people don’t realize that there are people who actually need the gender neutral bathroom because they don’t feel comfortable using any other bathrooms. If someone is going to use that bathroom, they should use it to go to the bathroom. Third, it’s a place where all genders are welcomed. People go in there to be with their friends during school, when they’re supposed to be doing something else. Nobody can question it – someone could easily make them look homophobic.

Student 2 (she/her): I think it’s because the bathroom is usually a super busy place, people from all different sexes, friends go to just hang out in general. There are always drugs and what not going around, so everyone abuses the space and uses it as a hook up [for drugs]. Personally, I like the gender neutral bathroom because it’s a private, calm, fun space for all my friends to go to smoke and hang out. 

Student 3 (he/him): The gender neutral [bathroom], from what I have seen, isn’t that far off in terms of drug use from other bathrooms. It’s the fact that everyone is allowed in that makes more people attracted to it. It’s kind of turned into a social environment, with so many kids going in to vape. There are also a lot of people with nicotine addictions coming in because odds are, if you go in there, you’re gonna get taps. Another thing is, the boys bathrooms can be nasty; sometimes it’s just a little more convenient and comfortable in the gender neutral [bathroom]. I don’t know about the sex stuff – kids are just nasty nowadays. 

Each answer, all though individually insightful, were consistent when articulating why the gender neutral bathroom is so popular. According to the student body, the reason for the bathrooms’ smoking issue is due to the exact reason why we need it: gender neutrality. 

I had the honor to speak with Peyton Chapman (she/her), our principal here at Lincoln. Ms. Chapman has been the principal for 16 years, and she was a big help in the fight for the gender neutral bathroom. When speaking with her, I developed the sense that the administration is still fighting alongside the student body regarding this bathroom. 

Can you give a little insight as to what the path to the gender inclusive bathroom was like? 

It was an incredible process and our students really identified the need; students really needed a safe place that was gender inclusive so that they could truly be their authentic selves and feel safe at school. They worked very closely with Jim Hansen who was the GSA advisor. He really helped them navigate the political process. I went in a couple times to give them feedback, but they really researched it; they looked nationally. There wasn’t really a gender inclusive bathroom in Oregon. We were really supportive; we did walk throughs to see which bathroom [to choose]. They ended up taking it to legal counsel at PPS, and then to the school board, and they got approval! We were then able to, in the short term, build it here. But with a long term idea, it will be in the new school. They then worked with PPS so that all the new high schools included gender neutral bathrooms. 

How would you define this issue, as a principal? 

I would say that the issue is that some students don’t understand the important need for gender inclusive restrooms. Yes, it’s nice to have places to socialize, but that’s not why we created them. Really, the research shows that students that non-binary/queer students need to really be their authentic selves in a safe space at this point in their lives in particular. They are more at risk of self-harm if they don’t have those spaces; it can be a matter of life and death. So, non-queer students who don’t have that understanding think that it is their right or their privilege to socialize in the bathrooms and sometimes that leads to poor choices that violate policy. Their choices are inflicting on really important and authentic rights to be safe at school. 

It’s like a lack of awareness, but then it’s also part of privilege. If you have never thought about anyone else’s experiences in a bathroom because you never needed to, because the dominant society just supported you to feel safe in any bathroom, then it’s just your privilege getting in the way of your understanding the lack of privilege other people have or the discrimination/harrassment/lack of understanding that some youth have had to grow up with. It weighs on them in ways that don’t weigh on other people equally. 

The issue is not the bathroom, it’s an equity issue. We are not trying to target the bathroom or queer students, we are trying to target behaviors that are disrespctful and harmful to others. 

As a parent of three kids, how do you feel about this issue? 

As a parent, I wouldn’t want my child to feel harmed at school or not safe in the bathroom. I feel that way about everything – it’s hard to separate being principal and parent because I’ve been a principal and parent since 2006. I always say, if my own child were being harmed I wouldn’t want it to happen. So, if my child didn’t feel like they could safely use the restroom, then I would do everything I could – not only for her/him/them – but for everyone else’s children, too. I feel strongly about it. The second piece is how I’m hearing from other parents that their children don’t feel safe using the bathroom because of the drug/vape/alcohol use; they don’t want to be swept up or in trouble, and they’re just uncomfortable with those choices. They [other students] don’t make those choices, so they want a healthy place to go [to the restroom]. Students also want to be allies; “I want to use the gender neutral bathroom because I’m an ally and I want ro keep it safe here.” As a parent and a principal, I want kids to have healthy, drug-free zones in school. School is not a place where drugs are sold or used. 

Really, it is serious. When you look at students who are more likely to be at risk of self-harm, you really have to do more to make them feel not just safe, but seen and honored for who they are. 

In my interview with Gail, the president of the GSA, we talked about how the majority of kids doing these bad things are actually queer students. Do you think that there’s a way to support kids – queer or not – with drug addiction in a way that isn’t scary?

That’s really interesting. I think pulling together people who’ve experienced similar feelings or issues would be great; student to student is really helpful. We have partnered with groups like Glisen to ask for extra resources that maybe our Nurse Mary or school psychologist might not have. I think it would be really good to bring in those resources. I’m sure there is trauma involved, and when people feel like they are not seen or heard or not being valued that makes them more at risk for self medication, I feel that’s really important. The GSA too could identify issues that are most important, like they did [with] the gender inclusive bathroom. If they said “what we’re really struggling is _. We don’t want to be in trouble, but we need to be able to talk about what’s going on and get help.” Lincoln has a partnership with West Psychological Services too, and they do drug and alcohol counseling. We’re wondering if they would come out and do a confidential screening or help share resources that people can sign up for. Parents were suggesting that they could offer resources, things like nicotine abatement patches; things that we can help with. 

Most schools have a community based health clinic but Lincoln doesn’t have one. I’ve been worried about that for a long time. When I was the vice principal at Madison High School, we had a school based health clinic and you could refer students, walk them there and say “you’re protected. You don’t have to talk to an administrator, you can talk to a doctor and it’s confidential. We have built a space over there [the new high school] that could house a private medical provider. Kids could then go there to get help; most people are covered by the state health insurance, OHP. Either your own health insurance or the Oregon Plan should be able to cover you to see a private provider. So, we are kind of talking about that already. 

In your eyes, how can students work with the administration to help deal with this? 

Some ideas that have come up, some from kids and some from adults, are that if there was a QR code in the stalls where kids could swipe and say, “hey, there are poor choices happening in here”, because some of it is just getting through the day. If you’re struggling with addiction, you need help just getting through the day and not using on sight. The less you use, the less you crave. It’s a downward spiral; if we just ignore it and allow it, then people will probably succumb to those cravings. So, just monitoring on sight, I think that we have to help people work with a provider to create a plan. Once there’s an addiction or a negative habit, it’s not like you can just say “Oh I’m gonna stop tomorrow.” It’s hard. 

Do you have anything else you’d like to say for the queer kids at school that feel that they’re unsafe or anything like that?

Yeah, please reach out to adults. Your counselors, nurse Mary, our school psychologist Jim Hansen, and the GSA advisor Doug Siegel. Any of the administration; we want to be here and part of the solution. I know our queer kids are not the problem, they are one of our best assets. 

This issue affects all of us, and it runs deeper than kids being intimidating in the bathroom. The issues lie within the student body. But the question remains: how can we get through to those who seem to ignore the needs of others? 

On December 9th 2021, the adults within Lincoln staff held a school forum meeting to talk with students about this issue. A lot of kids showed up and had something to say. 

We discussed possible solutions. 

Creating an environment that allows students to hold each other accountable was a large theme throughout the meeting, and bystander intervention trainings held by LINC will continue after winter break. We discussed how the real issue is drug use. Students expressed concern for their peers who are living with addiction and how the school can address it. 

Queer students were disheartened by the blatant drug use in the gender neutral bathroom. 

“It’s happening in every other bathroom, but people are recognizing the gender neutral bathroom because that’s all you see,” said anonymous.

Students unable to use any other bathroom feel as though they need to choose whether you go into a bathroom that they feel uncomfortable in or one they feel disrespected in. 

“It’s really hurtful to see this, because it’s so selfish. You can choose a space that isn’t as important as this one. Go outside, I don’t know – anything else. It’s just rude,” said anonymous. 

 We recognized the fact that our community fell apart during COVID. We needed to be together in order to build those connections, connections that inspire us to care for each other. 

“We all need to protect each other, and that is not what we’re doing right now because some people feel exempt from taking care of one another; we haven’t been together that long, especially with COVID. The kids that I see doing it, they don’t really care about one another in the first place. I think a lot of it is that we need to teach each other to care,” said anonymous.  

This issue has to do with you. Each one of us needs to tap into our personal capacity to care. So please, the next time you’re considering doing dumb stuff in the gender neutral bathroom, do it somewhere else. If you or your friends have issues with drug addiction, reach out for help. Let the bathroom be a bathroom. 

XOXO, your local angry queer kid.