State panel backs easier path for all-gender bathrooms

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 08-17-2023 4:24 PM

AMHERST — At Webster Hall on the University of Massachusetts campus, students last fall covered over the men’s and women’s designations for bathrooms with green tape, part of an effort to create more accessible gender-neutral bathrooms, at least on a temporary basis.

Becoming known as the Green Tape student group, the organization, said member Kairo Serna, has since done advocacy with state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, supporting bills they have filed over the last three legislative sessions to require a change in the state building code through the legislation titled “an act establishing gender-neutral bathrooms” and offered testimony during a listening session held by the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters.

“As a member of the Democratic State Committee, I am thankful that our elected officials are willing to use their offices to support grassroots organizers and help advocate for the rights and welfare of marginalized constituents,” Serna said.

Earlier this month, Green Tape’s work on the issue paid off, as an adjustment to the state building code that would permit all-gender, multi-user restrooms to be permitted in public buildings without a variance won support from the state panel.

The Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters at its Aug. 2 meeting voted unanimously to support a change to the state plumbing code in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations that would remove the requirement of seeking a variance. The proposed new code section is titled “Multi-User/Gender Neutral Toilet Rooms.”

The decision is also being praised by Comerford and Domb as being the change they sought in their bills.

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In addition to advocacy from Green Tape, the legislators have seen other projects affected by the need for a variance, such as the renovation of the Student Union at UMass, which received a variance for gender-neutral bathrooms, and in 2018, when UMass got a variance following a year-long pilot program on campus to keep two multi-stall bathrooms in Baker Residence Hall gender-inclusive.

“Rep. Domb and I have been inspired by students at UMass Amherst, who worked with the university to ensure all-gender restrooms were approved in residence halls and academic buildings,” Comerford said in a statement. “Students reported increased feelings of safety and reduced anxiety using the gender-inclusive bathrooms.”

Both Comerford and Domb thanked the Healey-Driscoll Administration and advocates like Green Tape, after the Senate bill last session was referred to the Legislature’s Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. It was reported on favorably, but stalled at the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“I’m excited, and I appreciate, that the board has advanced this measure, to update the plumbing code and respond to contemporary preferences and needs,” Domb said. “UMass Amherst students and administration officials brought this matter to our attention soon after we were elected, requesting our support for the variance they needed in order to create an all-gender bathroom on campus.

“The variance application process was an unnecessary barrier to the creation of all-gender bathrooms and removing it was clearly warranted,” Domb added.

Serna said the group appreciated the legislators’ help.

“Over the course of the year, they met with us, advised us on how to advocate for the bill and kept us in the loop on progress with the legislation and the plumbers' board while we gathered testimony and worked with administrators to make gender-inclusive housing safer, with a lot of success,” Serna said. “We hope to continue working with them on other LGBTQ+ issues and legislation.”

Until now, proposals for all-gender bathrooms have needed one-off permission or variances, given on a project-by-project basis. This new regulation would allow the installation of gender-neutral facilities without special permission and will align state code with international standards and be consistent with the state’s values of inclusion and safety, the legislators said.

The process to change the building code will go to public hearing before an official vote by the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>