Doug Lasdon is the founder and executive director of the Urban Justice Center in New York. Hugh Ryan is a development associate at the center.
As the transgender community gains visibility across the country, one ugly issue keeps coming up: bathrooms. There’s a reason for this. Bathrooms are places where we feel vulnerable, where we literally have our pants down, and feeling vulnerable is one step away from feeling fearful. And fear is a useful emotion — at least, it is for some politicians, who cynically manipulate the unfounded fears of their constituents in order to take a blowtorch to nondiscrimination laws. From North Carolina to Florida to Texas, the cry of “no men in women’s bathrooms” has been used to demonize trans people, simultaneously mobilizing frightened voters into defeating or repealing local ordinances aimed at protecting everyone from veterans to the elderly to — yes — transgender people.
If anyone is endangered in restrooms, however, it is trans people. A 2013 study by the Williams Institute found that 70 percent of trans people in the Washington area had experienced some kind of negative reaction while using a public bathroom, up to and including assault. When we bar transgender people from choosing the restroom that feels safest to them, we increase the dangers faced by a vulnerable population. Meanwhile, we do nothing to prevent sexual assault. If a felony charge won’t stop a rapist, why does anyone think a fine for using the wrong bathroom would do the trick?
Experience is the best way to counter irrational fear. Certainly, that was the case for the nonprofit Urban Justice Center in New York, where a decade ago we created gender-neutral bathrooms in our offices. We have thousands of visitors annually — from the hardworking low-income New Yorkers who need our free legal services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people to supporters who work as partners at some of the top law firms in the world. As we prepared to move into a new office in 2006, we spent weeks discussing how to address this issue. We knew we needed to balance the well-founded fears of the trans community with the less-grounded, but no less real, fears of those who only knew transgender people from salacious media depictions.
The approach we landed on was simple. We turned our women’s room into a multi-use, all-gender restroom. In the men’s room, we covered the urinals and declared the bathroom single-use, intended for one individual at a time. Our visitors can use whichever bathroom makes them feel most comfortable. The all-gender bathroom has no urinals, and each of the four stalls has floor-to-ceiling walls. Both bathrooms are publicly accessible, meaning individuals do not have to ask to be escorted to a special restroom (and risk outing themselves in the process). In this way, we made using the bathroom the easy, unobtrusive task it should always be.
We instituted our gender-neutral policy to respect the needs and lives of transgender people. But others also benefit from having gender-neutral restrooms, including parents with young children, adults whose elderly parents may need assistance and people of all stripes who employ caretakers for one reason or another. It also means that we never have that ridiculous situation in which the line for the women’s room is a mile long, while the men’s room sits empty just a few feet away.
As other organizations, such as Cooper Union college, begin to adopt gender-neutral restrooms, I’m delighted to be able to share that our experiences have been wholly positive. To this day, we have not received a single complaint. Not one in a decade. Nor have any incidents of violence or harassment been reported.
Leaving aside the issue of justice, from a pure management standpoint, creating gender-neutral bathrooms was, to us, a no-brainer. We employ some of the best and brightest New York has to offer; having accessible bathrooms helps us attract and retain these individuals, regardless of their gender identity. On a practical level, efforts to make people use one restroom or another are almost impossible to enforce, unless we’re ready to institute airport-style screenings in every public building in the United States — which would make everyone feel oh-so-safe.
Around the country, small-minded activists have made battlegrounds of what should be safe, quiet, clean places for people to do their private business quickly and easily. But pushing back against this prejudice can be as easy as changing a sign. In just a few minutes, you can make the world a little safer for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
I urge business leaders and heads of nonprofits around the country to join us in taking a stand for transgender rights. You have nothing to lose but your urinals.