There are few national issues as bitterly divisive as the use of public restrooms by transgender people.
On one side are those who believe people who identify with a gender that doesn’t correspond with their sex at birth should be free to use the restroom of their choice and see the question as an obvious civil rights issue.
On the other: Those who argue that giving transgender people that choice puts women and children at risk and — when sanctioned by the federal government — represents a form of illegal intrusion into personal privacy.
While activists and officials on both sides of the debate are lawyering up, the founder of a popular Austin movie-theater chain has unveiled plans for his business to sidestep the debate altogether, before it’s had a chance to fully take root in Texas.
The idea, outlined on Facebook by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema founder Tim League, is to design a restroom that is “comfortable for all genders.”
“Instead of taking sides on whether or not sexual predators will be invading the restrooms of our stores or public schools, we’ve been thinking about what an inclusive commercial gender-neutral restroom design might look like so that these challenges are not even part of the dialogue,” League’s post says. “The consensus was that we’d have a room with ‘standing’ toilets (heck, we’re even looking at those all-gender urinals) and individual rooms with sinks, mirrors and trash cans in each room, our ‘seated’ toilet area.”
“I don’t want to have any ‘men’ or ‘women’ signs in the building,” the post adds.
The restroom would be placed in the next Alamo Drafthouse location, League said, noting that he has been working with an architect.
His Facebook post includes a drawing of the evolving design that he hopes will meet city code.
What exactly a gender-neutral urinal looks like remains an open question, even for those involved in designing one.
“It’s new territory,” Alamo Drafthouse architect Richard Weiss told NBC affiliate KXAN. “It’s something we’re looking into. It’s essentially a urinal that has a throat that comes out, it’s a deeper stall.”
“The ultimate goal,” he added, “is that everybody should be able to do what they want to do where they want to do it.”
In a subsequent Facebook post, League clarified his position on transgender people and restrooms.
“My intent on the previous post was to discuss architectural design details for the proposed bathroom,” he wrote.
But, he added, he does not consider himself a neutral voice on the issue. Instead, he’s taken a side.
“My side is that bigotry and the associated violence and/or shaming stemming from your choice of stall is unacceptable,” he wrote. “But changing that mindset is likely going to take a long time. My hope is that by changing the design of restrooms we can in the meantime avoid some potential violence.”
He told KXAN that he was moved to take action by stories of young people becoming targets of violence.
“It’s the stories you hear of transgender kids getting beat up in high school bathrooms,” League said. “That’s a real problem and like I say, you can’t necessarily change everybody’s mind immediately on these issues, but you can hopefully by design eliminate conflict.”
If League is trying to get ahead of the restroom debate, it may be because some conservative lawmakers and activists see his state as the next frontier in the rapidly intensifying debate.
“Texas will be the next battleground,” said Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist, told the Texas Tribune. “In Texas, we need to draw a line in the sand. We need to stand with North Carolina.”
By some estimates, the battle has already come to the Texas.
On Wednesday, 11 states and state officials filed a lawsuit that challenged the Obama administration over federal guidance directing schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identities.
The federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, states that this guidance “has no basis in law” and could cause “seismic changes in the operations of the nation’s school districts.”
This legal challenge has been hinted at by officials since the administration released a letter earlier this month from two federal agencies — the Justice Department and the Education Department — that said they were issuing it in response to questions from school districts and schools.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told the Tribune that it is “very possible” that a statewide bathroom bill could be proposed in the next legislative session.
“I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Men need to stay out of the ladies’ room,” Patrick told the paper. “This isn’t about equal rights. This isn’t about being against anyone or anti-any person. This is about common sense, common decency and allowing women to have comfort when they’re in the bathroom.”
The potential of Texas becoming ground zero for the bathroom debate is already worrying members of the state’s business community, the Tribune reported.
That community, the newspaper reported, is keenly aware of the backlash North Carolina businesses have endured since state lawmakers passed a law earlier this year requiring people to use bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates.
In addition to tarnishing the state’s reputation internationally, that law is the subject of dueling state and federal lawsuits.
Jessica Shorthall, managing director of Texas Competes, a coalition of LGBT-friendly businesses, told the Tribune that anxious talk about an impending bathroom battle has already begun.
“I hear it every day, concerns and questions: ‘Is it really going to happen here?'” Shortall said, before adding that Texas “will suffer an enormous price if the state projects hostility toward LGBT people.”