New York City is well on its way toward adopting legislation that would require all single-stall restrooms to be gender neutral, a move that's being hailed as a positive step forward in the fight for equal rights and safety for transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. This afternoon the city council's Committee on Housing and Buildings heard testimony on Intro-0871, a bill that would amend city plumbing, housing, and administrative codes to require existing single-occupancy bathrooms be usable by people of any gender.
Current city code requires sex-specific restrooms in most buildings, but this legislation would give building owners the option of designating gender-neutral bathrooms instead of sex-specific restrooms.
Under the New York City Human Rights Law, it's illegal to prevent someone from using a single-sex facility that's consistent with the gender with which they identify. However, this does not provide a solution for non-binary or genderqueer individuals who may not identify within the binary of male or female. That's not to mention the anxiety that many transgender people experience when using the single-sex bathroom that aligns with their own gender identity, due to a history of bathroom-based violence against transgender people and right wing-fueled fallacies that trans-inclusive bathrooms will lead to violence against women. Gender-neutral single-stall bathrooms would provide an alternative for anyone, regardless of gender identity, who does not feel comfortable using a gendered, multi-stall bathroom.
“Some transgender people’s appearances do not conform to widely held stereotypes about how men or women should look, and not everyone’s a man or a woman — some of us are nonbinary,” said Ezra Cukor, testifying before the council committee. Cukor noted that a lack of gender-neutral restrooms can prevent transgender and gender-nonconforming people from accessing social services and medical care, and can also impact their performance at work, particularly if they have to leave the premises every time they want to use the bathroom.
The committee also heard testimony from Nellie Fitzpatrick, who directs the mayor's office of LGBT affairs in Philadelphia, where a similar law was signed into action in November. Fitzpatrick noted that in Philadelphia, there was some question about whether the law was necessary, given that the city's laws, like New York, already allow anyone to access either gendered bathroom based on their gender identity.
“The very simple answer to that is that bathrooms without designated gender or without signage labeling them as accessible to either men or only women benefit individuals who are not comfortable...when facing gendered bathrooms," Fitzpatrick said.
According to Fitzpatrick, there has been virtually zero pushback against the city's gender neutral bathroom law, but the city does have the ability to fine anyone who does not comply. Bobby Hodgson, an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, recommended that the City Council incorporate some sort of enforcement measure into the bill, as well as a requirement that new or renovated city buildings have a single-stall restroom in the first place, which they currently do not, according to Patrick Wehle of the Department of Buildings.
The council also heard testimony from Rocco Sanabria, a student at Maspeth High School who said that during his elementary school years at PS 58, he was forced to identify as a girl and use the girls' bathroom. (The state's education department has since issued new guidelines that prohibit schools from forcing students to use restrooms or locker rooms that do not align with their gender identity, in accordance with Title IX law.)
"The only times I’ve ever felt truly comfortable in a public bathroom is when using a more gender neutral, single occupant bathroom," Sanabria said. "It’s upsetting that when it comes to speaking in front of [the city council] and using a public bathroom, I’m more afraid to use a public bathroom."
With 27 sponsors so far, the bill stands a good chance of making it into law. If it does pass, New York City will join cities such as Philadelphia, Austin, and Washington, D.C. in offering a neutral option to gendered restrooms.