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Turning Public Restrooms Into Safe Spaces for Transgender New Yorkers

A new mandate about single-sex restrooms has raised the bar for what cities can do to engineer inclusivity.

A gender-neutral bathroom at the University of California, Irvine. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

On Monday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring that people be allowed to choose which public, multi-stall bathroom to use on the basis of the gender with which they identify. The ordinance took effect immediately; DNAinfo reports that it will affect 2,200 bathrooms in 55 city-run buildings, including public pools, gyms, and offices.

Upon signing the order, de Blasio said, “access to bathrooms and other single-sex facilities is a fundamental human right that should not be restricted or denied to any individual.” All New Yorkers, he added, “should feel safe in our city—and this starts with our city’s buildings.”

Discrimination on the basis of gender identity has been illegal under the New York City Human Rights Law since 2002; similar laws are in place in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. However, the breadth of violations covered by the New York provision were vague; NYC’s Commission on Human Rights released comprehensive guidelines outlining possible violations in December of last year, says Bobby Hodgson, an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The Commission on Human Rights document details how actions such as intentionally failing to use an individual’s self-identified name or pronoun, enforcing gender-restrictive uniforms or dress codes, and failing to provide health benefits covering gender-reassignment surgeries work in opposition to the protections enumerated in the 2002 law.

However, there’s often a gap between written laws and the lived experience of the people on whose behalf they are authored, says Cathryn Oakley, the senior legislative council at the Human Rights Campaign.

What’s unique about de Blasio’s new executive order, Hodgson adds, is the fact that it includes a provision—designed to close that gap—mandating that city employees receive training in how to understand and implement the protective policy.

“The commitment to actually educate city employees—frontline staff, managers, people on the ground who might not otherwise understand the extent of the law—on the requirements and best practices gives the lived experience of trans and gender non-conforming New Yorkers the best chance to come into alignment with the legal protections that have been in place for over a decade,” Hodgson tells CityLab.

The ordinance also underscores the illegality of asking people to show identification or medical records as proof of gender before entering a city-owned restroom.

Over the past year, the transgender community has seen an increase in visibility; Time called the current cultural moment the “transgender tipping point.” That awareness has also brought about a backlash, Oakley notes. Already, 2016 “has been a really challenging year around anti-transgender legislation in particular,” she says. The HRC is tracking nearly 200 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation, 44 of which are specifically anti-trans. And much of it, she says, derives from the fact that pockets of the country “are still several steps behind on understanding who trans people are and what they’re really all about.”

South Dakota recently vetoed legislation that would’ve mandated students in public schools to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex at birth; however, Tennessee is now considering a similar bill.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding, according to Oakley, about the effects of this discrimination on transgender people, and also, what exactly that discrimination looks like. It can be as extreme as being denied housing, or it can take the form of suspicious glances. Roberta Dunn, a 71-year-old transgender woman living in Charlotte, North Carolina, told The Los Angeles Times:  

I don't look proper in the men's room. Young boys would look at me. Men, they'd be like, “What are you doing in here?” ... I am a woman. I feel that I've been a woman since I was 5 or 6 years old, and [the women's room is] where I belong.

The New York City ordinance hopes to engineer a visible antidote to these exclusionary actions. On Monday, the mayor’s office tweeted out an image of a restroom stamped with the words “Discrimination-Free Zone”—the physical manifestation of the protections promised by law.

New York City, Oakley says, should stand as an example to other cities in this respect—and it’s very likely to do so. Oakley is the author on the HRC’s Municipality Equality Index, which rates over 400 cities throughout the country on the basis of their inclusivity of the LBGT people who live and work there.

In doing so, she’s “witnessed how competitive cities really are with each other, around LGBT issues in particular.” New York’s ordinance, Oakley says, has reset the bar for the responsibility cities must take to protect and include all of their residents.

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