West Hollywood Switches to Gender-Neutral Restrooms
By Hailey Branson-Potts and Christopher Goffard
A simple plastic sign depicting stick figures of a man and a woman has become an unlikely touchstone in the transgender-rights movement.
Over the last few weeks, businesses across West Hollywood have been replacing "men" and "women" bathroom signs with gender-neutral ones to comply with a new city law prohibiting gender identifications.
West Hollywood is the first city in California to adopt gender-neutral restrooms, joining a small number of cities across the country.
The University of California last year announced that its campuses would begin converting single-stall restrooms into gender-neutral facilities.
And state public schools began allowing students to use the bathrooms _ and play on the sports teams _ of the gender with which they identify, rather than their birth gender.
West Hollywood's new law takes effect Thursday and gives businesses 60 days to scuttle gender-specific signs in restrooms intended for no more than one person. In coffee shops with a men's and a women's bathroom, for example, that means both restrooms will become gender-neutral.
City leaders said that the old school "men" and "women" restrooms were outdated and puts transgender people in the difficult position of having to "out" themselves simply by picking a door.
"I know for a number of transgender people that having to choose whether to go into the male or female restroom is not as easy as it can be for non-transgender people," said West Hollywood Councilwoman Abbe Land, who introduced the motion, which passed unanimously last year.
"It's all about access and equality."
Land said her council office is working to inform other cities about the law in the hope they will adopt it, but she expected it would face longer odds in areas with smaller, less visible LGBT populations.
Land said the law will help gender nonconforming people, disabled people with personal assistants who might be a different gender, people with children of a different gender and people who don't want to stand in line for a restroom when there's another one for a different sex that's not being used.
The City Council approved the ordinance in June at a meeting in which Drian Juarez, who belongs to the city's Transgender Advisory Board, cited a 2010 attack on a transgender graduate student at restroom on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. Juarez said the new law would give "protection to transgender people."
In that incident, the student said an assailant pushed him into a bathroom stall and carved the word "it" onto his chest. A school spokeswoman said the alleged attacker was never identified and that police believed it was an "isolated incident."
Recently, the school installed numerous gender-neutral restrooms on campus, and it provides a map to students to find them. "In general, we feel it provides a safe place for our transgender students," said the spokeswoman, Terri Carbaugh.
West Hollywood officials said the city is the first in California to pass such a law, though a few municipalities in other states have enacted similar ones.
Austin, Texas, enacted one last year, and the Philadelphia City Council passed a law in 2013 requiring new or renovated city-owned buildings to include gender-neutral restrooms.
Washington, D.C., has had a similar law on the books since 2006, though most businesses failed to comply because of confusion or lack of awareness. Recently, the district's Office of Human Rights started a public shaming campaign of sorts, called Safe Bathrooms DC that asks people to tweet photos of bathroom signs across the city of gendered single-stall bathrooms.
Sasha Buchert, a staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, said the West Hollywood ordinance was "a really common-sense law, a low-cost way to meet the needs of so many communities."
Buchert said that being forced to use a gender-specific restroom can induce fear and anxiety for transgender people.
"It outs people repeatedly," Buchert said. "The new law allows those folks to move safely through their day and not have to carry around that anxiety."
Buchert pointed to a 2011 survey of transgender people, which found that 53 percent of respondents reported being verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, buses, airports and government agencies.
Genevieve Morrill, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the law was inexpensive to comply with and had received a positive response among businesses owners. "I think they know where they live," she said. "We're a progressive city."
Coco LaChine, a member of the city's Transgender Advisory Board and a West Hollywood resident, said the gender-neutral restrooms will stand as a liberating symbol to people visiting the city.
"I try to avoid using the restroom for fear of being confronted or being harassed," LaChine said. "I shouldn't have to do that. But it's very common."
Gigi Gonzalez, who was visiting West Hollywood's Plummer Park early Wednesday, said she supported the new law.
"You wouldn't have to put (in) two different restrooms, just one nice one," she said. "That would be great _ as long as the men keep it clean." At Pizza Rustica on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, restaurant owner Pedram Eliasnik changed the signage of his two restrooms several weeks ago to comply with the law.
The restaurant had two separate restrooms, one for men, one for women. Now, they both have blue plastic signs on their doors that have white male and female stick figures.
One of the restrooms has a urinal, one doesn't. But anyone can use either of them.
Eliasnik said he put up the signs himself, paying $10 for each at Home Depot.
"It took me less than 30 minutes to do all of it," he said.
He said the change helped his business because he's open until 4 a.m. on the weekends in the heart of the city's Boystown area, surrounded by gay bars and clubs.
In those early-morning hours after the clubs close, the restaurant is filled almost entirely with men, who formed lines at the men's restroom door while the female restroom went unused.
"A lot of them were complaining, 'Why aren't there two bathrooms?'" Eliasnik said.
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