Freaked Out By the Gender-Neutral Bathrooms in Jim Kenney’s LGBT Bill?

You might want to think about what that means.

Last Thursday, a City Council committee approved Councilman Jim Kenney’s LGBT equality bill, which offers spousal partnership benefits to non-married life partners—hospital visits, “next of kin” designation, retirement benefits, even a tax-credit incentive to employers. Some of what’s in the bill has been discussed by Philadelphia’s City Council before, and some of it even passed in 1998—only to be struck down by the state Supreme Court.

“I think in terms of society, and to some degree the courts are a reflection of society, things have taken a quantum leap from 1998 to the present,” Equality Forum founder Malcolm Lazin told the Metro last year. But that was before the bill had transgender-inclusive provisions. Has society taken a quantum leap in terms of trans acceptability too? I don’t think so.

When it comes to the life partnership benefits in Kenney’s bill, I haven’t heard any of the people I know—who are generally progressive—say one word about them. It’s just common sense at this point. Yet when it comes to the transgender protections, I sense an attitude of, “Really? But isn’t that going too far?” Interestingly, this emerges most starkly around the provision for the gender-neutral bathrooms, which reads:

Any new building constructed by the City shall include Gender-Neutral Bathrooms in number and location appropriate to the building’s use.

(b) Whenever the City renovates a building that it owns or occupies, or any portion of a building that it owns or occupies, and such renovation includes renovation of bathrooms, Gender-Neutral Bathrooms in number and location appropriate to the use of the building or portion thereof so renovated shall be established.

This seems to drive people crazy. Let me assuage all fears: Jim Kenney would not demand gender-neutral bathrooms if it was going to turn the world upside-down. First of all, gender-neutral bathrooms are not exactly news. In D.C., for instance, single-occupancy restrooms must be gender-neutral or building owners get penalized by the Office of Human Rights. On college campuses, gender-neutral bathrooms are now quite common—and have been since I was in college in the … 19somethings.

Here, check this out:

In light of [a] recently amended housing policy that will allow first-year students starting with the Class of 2016 to request gender-neutral housing … The University has approved an increase in the number of single-use, gender-neutral bathrooms that will be available around campus. About 80 public single-use restrooms on campus will be converted to gender-neutral bathrooms …

That’s not from Portlandia University. It’s from Penn. A year ago. And when they say “will be converted,” they mean, “we’ll put up new signs.” Because that’s how easy it is to make a gender-neutral bathroom.

Each time someone balks at the gender-neutral bathrooms in this bill, I have to assume there’s more going on. We’re talking about city-owned construction. I can’t remember the last time I peed in a city-owned toilet, and I’ll bet the same could be said for a lot of the people getting nervous. But that’s because we’re not talking about bathrooms. We’re talking about a majority that’s not comfortable with a disenfranchised population because that population is not yet culturally legible. There hasn’t yet been a trans version of Will and Grace with a gender-neutral bathroom, so the majority hesitates to grant the unfamiliar population their rights. Which is all the more reason for them to have them.

Listen, progressives-of-a-certain-age (and other outliers): I understand that you may not be as conversant with trans issues as you are with gay and lesbian ones. But just as you can’t be half-pregnant, you can’t be half-just. The legislation provides equality “regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation,” or it does not provide equality at all.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • Chris Goy

    Thanks for the article, Liz. Indeed, after working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Property, it was made clear all new construction and major renovation of City-operated buildings will have single-use, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms made available. That existing regulation alone already satisfies the bill’s requirement and is, in reality, how it will be implemented.

    So, this specific provision is not asking for a quantum leap forward; just private, single-use bathrooms in new City construction. After all, what Philadelphian hasn’t wanted a little privacy in a public place at one point or another?

    Lastly, attached is a list of the many other civil rights provisions included in the bill that will help LGBT Philadelphians have a fair shot at equality: in the workplace; in their family life; on the streets; and by their own City government.

  • y7

    As long as these are private single-use facilities, I really do not understand what the issue is.