Politics & Government

Lessons from a town – D.C. – with transgender bathroom rights for the past 10 years

The 2006 'Bathroom Law' that seems to work for D.C.

While the battle continues over North Carolina's HB2 bill, a related law aimed at making bathrooms open to all genders has been in effect in Washington, D.C. since 2006. Local business owners who have had to adapt see it as practical and convenien
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While the battle continues over North Carolina's HB2 bill, a related law aimed at making bathrooms open to all genders has been in effect in Washington, D.C. since 2006. Local business owners who have had to adapt see it as practical and convenien

If North Carolina political leaders are forced by federal officials to abandon the controversial HB2 bathroom law, there’s a city a few hundred miles north with a model they could use.

Washington, D.C., the nation’s political epicenter – and the place where the long-term fate of laws like HB2 are likely to be decided in court – has officially allowed transgender people to use public restrooms based on their gender identity since 2006.

In effect, D.C.’s law is the opposite of North Carolina’s HB2, said Elliot Imse, director of policy and communication in Washington’s Office of Human Rights.

The district laws serve to protect transgender people who may face discrimination, harassment and even violence in restrooms or elsewhere, Imse said. D.C. law addresses transgender bathroom use in two important ways, and both parts set forth requirements for restrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms inside businesses, schools and government agencies.

▪ Part one regulates multi-stall restrooms with “women” or “men” signs at the entrance. D.C. allows “women” and “men” signs but mandates that transgender people be allowed to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

▪ Part two applies to single-stall restrooms. D.C. requires these facilities be labeled gender neutral – meaning for use by women or men, transgender or otherwise.

D.C.’s law also includes 18 other types of protections, including on the basis of disability, national origin, political party affiliation, race, age and religion.

“I don’t see why it couldn’t be emulated anywhere else,” Imse said.

North Carolina’s legislature recently passed a law that prevents transgender people from using government-run bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify. The law — House Bill 2 (HB2) — has incited a state-wide civil liberties b

In North Carolina, HB2 requires people in government buildings and schools to use bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. The law has been called discriminatory but supporters argue it’s a necessary measure for privacy and safety.

Here’s what can happen with a bathroom law like D.C.’s:

1. Change unfolds slowly

In 2014, eight years after D.C. passed its bathroom laws, local government officials launched an awareness campaign called “Safe Bathrooms” – a move made after some confusion about enforcement and business regulations. Still, D.C. bathroom use has not been without conflict.

Less than three weeks ago, for example, a transgender woman reported being called a homophobic slur and alleged that she was physically pushed out of a D.C. grocery store women’s restroom by a security guard. Police charged the female security guard with misdemeanor assault and the incident is being treated as a suspected hate crime, according to the Washington Post.

In 2016, some businesses still don’t comply with the original law. But progress is made, sometimes business by business. New businesses are denied opening permission if bathrooms don’t comply.

Before opening his neighborhood bar and restaurant Public Option last year, D.C. business owner Bill Perry failed an initial inspection, in part because his building has two single-stall restrooms – one labeled for men, the other for women.

“Those were left over from the previous occupant,” Perry said. “I hadn’t thought one way or the other but I learned. ... I was happy to go out and spend the approximately one dollar and buy new signs.”

Perry put up two gender-neutral signs and later added a sign indicating one restroom includes a baby-changing table.

“To the best of my knowledge,” he said, “there’s been no issue whatsoever with any of the customers.”

I expect people to use all of the property, including the bathroom, respectfully. Get on in, get on out. Have another cold beer, as far as I’m concerned.

Bill Perry, D.C. business owner

Nearby to Public Option, in a neighborhood a few miles away from the main D.C. tourist drag, business owner Erin Lingle skipped traditional bathroom labels. At Lingle’s Nido Spanish and Italian restaurant, two single-stall bathrooms are labeled “WC,” – for water closet, an old English term for a restroom.

Lingle says she would have used gender-neutral signs regardless of D.C. law. One reason: One of Nido’s bathrooms is downstairs, which could present difficulty for customers with disabilities.

“It’s a bathroom like it’s a bathroom in your home,” she said. “It’s your own private space when you’re in there. I just think it makes sense. It’s easy to adopt.”

2. Safety issues not common

There have been no reported cases in D.C. of non-transgender people posing as transgender in order to access restrooms with criminal intentions, as has been feared by some proponents of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law, Imse said. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department did not return a request from McClatchy for information.

Given D.C.’s record of no crimes related to the bathroom law – other than transgender people at times facing harassment – Imse says the safety argument for laws like HB2 “seems absurd.”

Business leaders interviewed by McClatchy recently in D.C. agreed.

“I really don’t understand why anybody is getting upset about this. From what I know, the cases that they’re citing of men putting on wigs to stalk people in the bathroom, those aren’t people that identify as transgender. Those are predators. And, that’s completely different,” said Kyle Todd, executive director of one of D.C.’s economic development programs.

The business owners he’s talked with don’t have concerns about D.C.’s approach, Todd said, adding “the (customers’) dollar bills all look the same.”

You’ve probably been using the restroom with transgender people off and on for decades, and nobody’s ever known.

Kyle Todd, an economic development leader in D.C.

Perry said safety in restrooms matters but he thinks the political debate has “built up an awful lot of threats that aren’t there.”

“I expect people to use all of the property, including the bathroom, respectfully,” he said. “Get on in, get on out. Have another cold beer, as far as I’m concerned.”

3. The difference is subtle

Crossing a state line into a jurisdiction with different bathroom laws may largely go unnoticed by most.

D.C. laws don’t apply to federal government property such as the National Zoo, the National Mall, museums like the Smithsonian and tourist areas around the White House and U.S. Capitol.

“Everywhere we went it was just very much standard operating procedure. ... It was just boys (or) girls,” said Jay Pfeifer, a Charlotte resident who visited D.C. recently with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 8 at the time.

Nearly 20 million tourists visit D.C. annually, frequenting museums, restaurants and hotels.

The Pfeifers spent four days in Washington on what Pfeifer described in an interview as a “standard kids’ Spring Break.” The trip happened just days after North Carolina’s legislature passed HB2.

“I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t even notice (a difference),” said Pfeifer, who opposes HB2.

Pfeifer’s youngest child – his daughter – has just recently been allowed to go into public restrooms without her mom accompanying her.

“It still makes me nervous if she takes too long, but that has nothing to do with (transgender people or HB2),” Pfeifer said.

South Carolina college student Emily Goodman also said she’s noticed nothing different about bathrooms in D.C.

“Also, I've never gone out of my way to look for that,” Goodman said of her multiple trips to visit family members in D.C.

Goodman, 24, attends Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and she recently returned from a Spring Break trip to D.C. She understands why some people may be concerned about bathroom safety but thinks the stalls found in remote “sketchy” gas stations feel more threatening than allowing access based on gender identity.

“If I were a parent, I might have a slightly different view towards (HB2),” she said.

Like Pfeifer, Goodman said a general threat of predators attacking a child or a woman in a restroom is more real than dangers related to transgender bathroom use.

4. Exceptions may still apply

Unique in that it’s not a state but a federal district ultimately under the authority of Congress, D.C. cannot enforce its bathroom laws in some of the most-trafficked parts of the city. D.C. laws do not apply to federal government property, which includes the National Zoo and the popular Smithsonian museums on the National Mall.

Federal laws bar discrimination in public spaces based on sex but do not explicitly include gender identity as a protected class. The interpretation of those federal laws is the crux of the political and legal fight unfolding between states like North Carolina and the Department of Justice.

But the D.C. law does apply to restaurants, hotels and privately owned businesses also popular with tourists, like the kid-friendly International Spy Museum and the Newseum.

D.C. tourism officials told McClatchy they have no data on the impact on tourism concerning local bathroom laws.

280 Complaints filed since 2014 about D.C. businesses not following bathroom laws

Other jurisdictions with similar bathroom laws also have limitations while aiming to provide equality for transgender people.

For example, a Maryland state law bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity but includes exemptions for religious organizations, private clubs and schools. Maryland’s law also puts restrictions on transgender people’s use of locker rooms or places where it’s common for people to disrobe.

In other states – especially those without any specific bathroom laws – public schools have used a mix of policies. Some allow bathroom use based on gender identity; others restrict use based on birth sex. Some provide alternative, single-stall rooms for transgender students – which may not go far enough under new federal guidelines.

5. New policies take shape

As D.C. rolled out its bathroom laws, government officials set up new administrative processes for complaints, questions and enforcement.

A key question surrounding North Carolina’s HB2 is enforcement and whether transgender people would be punished if they disregard the law. HB2 provides no penalty and has no enforcement provision.

About half of the bathroom rights complaints filed with the D.C. Office of Human Rights are resolved through mediation meetings outside a court.

The “Safe Bathrooms” awareness and enforcement campaign in D.C. is ongoing. Residents and visitors are asked to report violations via phone, email and social media.

Officials have received 280 complaints since its 2014 launch. Complaints are largely about businesses not using single-stall gender neutral signs.

Existing out-of-compliance businesses are sent a letter and asked to fix issues within 30 days. In almost every case, Imse said, there’s a finding of “no harm, no foul” when businesses take down gender-specific signs and replace them with gender-neutral ones.

Effecting change for multi-stall bathrooms can be more involved.

In D.C., transgender people may file discrimination claims if they are denied access to multi-stall restrooms. Imse says there were 16 discrimination claims last year involving possible gender identity discrimination in public accommodations – some were about bathrooms, others about general service.

About half the time, he said, complaints are resolved through mediation meetings with complainants and business owners. Others can lead to official investigations and go before an administrative courts judge.

But mostly, it seems, D.C.’s bathroom laws haven’t caused a fuss, Todd said.

“You’ve probably been using the restroom with transgender people off and on for decades, and nobody’s ever known,” he said. “I just can’t stress this enough: It’s just not a big deal. There hasn’t been a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It’s just a bathroom.”