Testimony Regarding Legislation Relating to Single-Occupant Bathrooms

My name is Bobby Hodgson, and I am an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (the “NYCLU”). I would like to thank Councilmember Dromm and the Committee on Housing and Buildings for inviting the NYCLU to provide testimony today in support of this proposed legislation, Int. No. 0871-2015 (“the Bill”), seeking to update New York City’s building and administrative codes to require single-occupant bathrooms to be accessible to all genders.

The NYCLU, the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization with eight offices across the state and 80,000 members and supporters. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights, and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. This includes the rights to equality, privacy, and personal autonomy that are implicated by today’s legislation.

In light of our long history of vigorously defending the rights and liberties of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the NYCLU is pleased to testify in support of the Bill. Mandating that all single-occupant bathrooms be open to people of any gender is a simple and effective way to increase the number of bathrooms that are safe and accessible to all. Because other cities have recently passed similar legislation that offers lessons on how best to further the goals of the Bill, we also submit two recommendations to strengthen the protections it offers: (1) the addition of an affirmative requirement that new or renovated City buildings include single-occupant bathroom options; and (2) the addition of a clear and effective enforcement mechanism.

Requiring Single-User Facilities to Be Open to People of Any Gender Will Improve the Lives of Many New Yorkers, in Particular Those Who Are Transgender and Gender Nonconforming

This Bill represents a positive and common-sense step towards ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of their gender identity or expression, have safe and convenient access to bathroom facilities. Its mandate is simple—requiring nothing more of covered entities than re-labeling a door or switching out one sign for another—and it will provide a substantial benefit to countless people.

For transgender and gender nonconforming people, gender-segregated bathrooms can be unwelcoming and potentially unsafe. These spaces often become flashpoints of harassment or violence when business owners, employers, or members of the public challenge a transgender person’s right to access the facility that corresponds with their gender identity. In one study, seventy percent of transgender respondents reported experiencing either denial of access to facilities, verbal harassment, or physical harassment when attempting to access gender-segregated bathrooms.1 Fears about encountering such behavior lead many transgender people to attempt to avoid public bathrooms altogether, either by regularly “holding it in” and potentially causing health problems or by staying away from public spaces.2  For people whose gender identity or expression does not conform to stereotypical norms or who do not identify as male or female, gender-specific single-user bathrooms create a similar potential for unnecessary confrontation and confusion.

In addition to transgender and gender nonconforming New Yorkers, many others would benefit from the Bill’s guarantee of uniformity and efficiency. People with disabilities who may need a personal attendant to accompany them to the bathroom would no longer face access barriers if their companion is of a different gender. Similarly, people accompanying children of a different gender than themselves would have unambiguous access to all single-user facilities. Finally, anyone who has ever waited in line for one gender-specific bathroom while the other gender-specific bathroom remained empty would benefit from the elimination of needless barriers to access.

The Bill Reflects a Growing Nationwide Consensus

The elimination of gender-specific single-user public bathrooms would bring New York City in line with large cities across the country—including Washington, D.C.3 ;Seattle4 ; Austin5 ;and Philadelphia6 —that have adopted similar laws or regulations in recent years. None of these actions has resulted in controversy, and each of them has been welcomed as a common-sense change that offers significant benefits to transgender and non-transgender people alike who need safe and reliable access to facilities.7

In fact, these other jurisdictions also offer examples of additional legal or administrative features that amplify the positive effect of their policies. In Philadelphia, the city affirmatively requires all new or renovated city-owned buildings to include a sufficient number of all-gender single-user bathrooms.8 In Washington, D.C., the city’s Office of Human Rights publicizes easy-to-use methods for reporting violations of the law through Twitter or online, and it has also launched a campaign—including posters and a “#safebathroomsDC” hashtag—to spread public awareness about the issue.9

This Bill represents a significant step towards making New York City a safer and more welcoming place to transgender and gender nonconforming people. In order to ensure that the City remains a committed leader in safeguarding their rights, though, the NYCLU also recommends that the Council incorporate these additional components—an affirmative requirement for new/renovated buildings and a clear enforcement protocol—into the Bill.

In conclusion, we applaud Councilmember Dromm and the Bill’s co-sponsors for their recognition of the Council’s responsibility to address the needs of New Yorkers seeking safe and equal access to bathrooms. This is a welcome step forward in fulfilling the City’s promise to treat all New Yorkers equally and to offer affirmative support to those who have long been subjected to pervasive discriminatory treatment and harassment. We respectfully submit this testimony in support of the Bill to the Committee, with the additional recommendations outlined above.

 

Footnotes

1 Jody L. Herman, Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives, 19 Journal of Public Management & Social Policy 65, 71 (Spring 2013) (survey of 93 transgender and gender nonconforming people in Washington, D.C.), available at http://bit.ly/1SJFCf4.

2 Id. at 74-77.

3 D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 4 § 802.2 (2006).

4 Seattle Mun. Code § 14.07 (2015).

5 Austin City Council Resolution No. 20140828-084 (Aug. 28, 2014) (instructing City Manager to process all necessary code amendments to require gender-neutral signage for single-occupancy restrooms); Austin City Council Press Release, New Gender-Neutral Sign Regulations For Single Use Commercial Restrooms Are In Effect (Jan. 15, 2015), available at http://bit.ly/1mW7mVv.

6 Philadelphia Code § 9-636 (2015).

7 See, e.g., Noah Smith, “Restroom Ordinance Is Just One More Sign of a City’s Acceptance,” New York Times (Jan. 17, 2015), available at http://nyti.ms/1nh5ZAD. Indeed, citing these and other laws that have been successfully implemented around the country, the New York City Comptroller recently released a report recommending that the Council follow suit. Office of the New York City Comptroller, Restrooms for All: A Plan to Expand Gender Neutral Restrooms in NYC (June 2015), available at http://on.nyc.gov/1PserDz. Similarly, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued legal guidance recommending that, in order to comply with the anti-discrimination mandates of the New York City Human Rights Law, “[c]overed entities that have single-occupancy restrooms should make clear that they can be used by people of all genders.” Commission on Human Rights, Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression (Dec. 2015) at 5, available at http://on.nyc.gov/1kYSlA9.

8 Philadelphia Code § 16-104 (2013).

9 http://1.usa.gov/1Pc0t8s.