Austin Could Be First Texas City To Make All Single-Person Public Restrooms “Gender Free”

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On August 28th the Austin City Council will consider a resolution to make all single occupancy restrooms “gender free.” In practice this means goodbye to the traditional gender binary signage on restrooms intended for individuals — no changes will be made for restrooms with multiple stalls.

Austin would be the first major city in Texas to make the change that has already made its way on to some Texas University campuses including the University of Texas.

Austin City Councilman Chris Riley is sponsoring the measure which will charge the City Manager with directing city employees to work up recommendations for implementation and final language on an ordinance. That is expected to take less than 30 days likely putting a proposed ordinance up for vote on September 25th. If it all goes as expected an ordinance could be in effect by Oct. 6th. That would give the city roughly ten days to inform businesses to comply.

Austin has what is basically an enforcement on demand policy which means you should not expect city employees to peruse every facility in the city, but rather work on a method of educating and encouraging all businesses to comply from the outset. Leah Bojo, Riley’s policy director indicated that the city would likely work with groups such as Equality Texas, the Gay and Lesbian Chamber, and the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) to help with spreading the word.

In my conversation with Bojo in Riley’s office at least 2 other cities were referenced. Philadelphia has an ordinance that applies to only city owned facilities, but Washington D.C. has a further reaching ordinance more similar to the one Austin is considering that covers all public facilities.

Enforcement was initially a big problem in D.C., but that is not surprising since this issue is addressing something as ubiquitous as restrooms. Compliance is more about educating business owners that the rule exists than dealing with pushback against it, and that’s why the solution they have employed is not only creative but has gotten the attention of Austin officials as well.

Individuals are asked to tweet pictures to a hashtag “#safebathroomsDC” so that the Office of Human Rights can then enforce compliance on those particular businesses.

The change would be limited to signage and would not force businesses to alter actual restrooms themselves. Still, members of the transgender community see this as a step towards equal representation and public acceptance. Gender binary restrooms can be a constant reminder that so many view our world in black and white terms leaving some individuals to feel uncomfortable.

I spoke with Caomhán Ó Raghallaigh, Policy Analyst at Legalize Human and he told me:

I’m particularly glad to see that the resolution acknowledges that this is a change that will benefit many people, and that it’s not only about gender.

I must admit that, as a transgender man, the first thing that came to mind was the 50+ years I spent waiting in a line in front of a door labeled ‘women’ when there was no one in the single-occupancy restroom labeled ‘men.’

As a person in medical transition I’ve had more than enough uncomfortable trips to the restroom, and have in fact, often gone far out of my way to finds a place where there’d be less chance of being questioned about my choice of restroom. Soon I’ll only need to remember the closest place with single-occupancy restrooms since gender identity or gender expression won’t be an issue there.

Transgender individuals won’t be the only people affected. Have you ever seen or stood in a line outside the women’s restroom, while men walk in and out of the men’s room without a wait? I for one am guilty of slipping into a single occupancy restroom labeled “women” when the “men’s” is taken. This would eliminate that awkward taboo feeling as you walk out to the surprised individual waiting next in line.

This would also affect elderly couples who need the assistance of their spouse and disabled individuals who may want help from an opposite gender caretaker to use the restroom to not feel they are violating some social norm.

The City of Houston recently passed a equal rights amendment called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance or HERO, but it was stripped of a similar clause dubbed “the bathroom clause” after some misinformation caused hysteria among detractors.

Luckily, that is not expected to be an issue with residents, businesses or city officials in Austin.

Riley’s office issued the following statement:

Austin has demonstrated leadership on LGBTQ issues, and “gender free” restrooms are one more way that we can lead. This change will make our city safer and more inclusive, which is better for all Austinites.

Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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