Coming soon to Philly: Gender-neutral bathrooms required by law?
Scores of Philadelphia’s public bathrooms would have to become gender-neutral and drop the labels “Men” and “Women” under legislation that is to be introduced Thursday in City Council.
The bill – which applies only to single-occupant bathrooms, not those with multiple stalls – would place Philadelphia among the first major U.S. cities to take a step long sought by transgender advocates.
“Using a public bathroom can be a highly stressful, rising to even dangerous experience for certain individuals,” said Helen “Nellie” L. Fitzpatrick, director of Mayor Nutter’s Office of LGBT Affairs, which drafted the bill. “It basically comes down to people policing other people’s gender.”
There are an estimated 700,000 transgender adults in the United States, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Advocates stress that for transgender people, access to restrooms is not just a matter of convenience but an issue of public safety due to potential discrimination.
A handful of cities, including Philadelphia, have already taken steps to make public bathrooms more inclusive. In 2006, Washington became the first city to require single-occupancy bathrooms be gender-neutral; Austin, Texas, and West Hollywood, Calif., have since enacted similar laws.
In 2013, as part of a sweeping LGBT-equality law introduced by then-Councilman Jim Kenney, now the Democratic mayoral nominee, Philadelphia required new or renovated city-owned buildings to have gender-neutral bathrooms in addition to men’s and women’s rooms. Fitzpatrick said that law, while significant, has had little impact – because few city buildings have been built since.
As the transgender-rights movement has gained increased national attention, the discussion has widened. In June, Seattle’s mayor and New York City’s comptroller called on their city councils to pass gender-neutral bathroom laws.
Elsewhere, opponents have introduced bills to criminalize use of single-sex bathrooms designated for people of other sexes, often arguing such steps will protect against sexual predators, according to a report prepared by New York’s comptroller.
Earlier this year, the White House added a gender-neutral bathroom, one in a series of steps the Obama administration has taken to address LGBT issues.
Under current Philadelphia law, when both men’s and women’s rooms are available, individuals can opt for whichever fits their gender identity. Fitzpatrick said that in practice, though, hurtful and potentially dangerous situations can arise – when other people “police bathrooms based on what people think about somebody’s gender presentation.”
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