New Laws Are Making Public Bathrooms Safer for Transgender People

Single-occupancy bathrooms in the gay-friendly city of West Hollywood will soon have to be gender-neutral.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Starting this week, businesses in West Hollywood, California, have 60 days to get rid of the men's and women's signs on the doors of single-occupancy bathrooms and make those places gender-neutral.

Bathroom rules are changing thanks to a law passed last year by the City Council of West Hollywood, an independent municipality in the city of Los Angeles that has a population of about 34,000 and is a hub for gay life.

Why is it a big deal to have gender-neutral—meaning neither male nor female—bathrooms? Many transgender people say that they frequently experience difficulty or downright harassment when they try to use public restrooms. A study of trans people in Washington, D.C., found that nearly 70 percent had been verbally harassed when using a public bathroom. Of the people surveyed, 18 percent had been denied restroom access, and almost 10 percent were victims of physical violence—meaning they were forcibly removed, hit, kicked, or cornered—in public bathrooms.

Transgender people have also been reported to the police for using the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities. In Houston, Tyjanae Moore was arrested for using the women's restroom in a library, even though the city's nondiscrimination policy specified that trans people can use the bathrooms that match their gender identities. An Idaho transgender woman named Ally Robledo was charged with trespassing after using the women's room in a grocery store. Robledo pointed out that because she identifies and lives as a woman, she doesn't feel safe using the men's bathroom.

"When I did use the male's [restroom], there would be people that would harass me in school. I would feel really embarrassed, and there were times when I found myself in a lot of dangerous situations.... I'm a female trapped in a man's body; it's natural for me to go to the ladies' room," Robledo said.

While the law won't affect restrooms that have more than one stall, it will give transgender people more options and ensure that trans people don't get hassled for going into single-stall bathrooms.

Some members of the transgender community in West Hollywood have praised the new rules. "Thank you for discussing gender-neutral restrooms here in the city of West Hollywood and for giving that protection to transgender people," West Hollywood Transgender Advisory Board member Drian Juarez said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I believe that the city of West Hollywood truly is a jewel within the LGBT community."

While there hasn't been much public pushback against the West Hollywood law, there has been resistance to nondiscrimination ordinances in other parts of the United States that allow transgender people to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities. Some opponents of an ordinance in Massachusetts began referring to it as "the bathroom bill" and claimed that allowing transgender women to use the women's room would put girls in danger. There's no evidence to support this criticism, and it isn't relevant to the West Hollywood law because the policy only applies to single-occupancy bathrooms.

West Hollywood is one of several cities trying to resolve the issue. In D.C., single-occupancy bathrooms at restaurants or in public places became gender-neutral after a law was passed in 2006. Businesses that don't comply with the law have started to face fines. In 2013, Philadelphia passed a law requiring newly renovated or constructed buildings to have a gender-neutral single-occupancy restroom.

After the law passed, Councilman Jim Kenney, who sponsored the bill and called it "the next iteration of civil rights and freedom in the United States," explained why these laws are necessary. "It can be an awkward and embarrassing situation [for anyone who may] feel more like a woman but can't use the woman's room," Kenny said.