Transgender bathroom issue moves to the fore

IN TUNE: More and more, institutions are reconfiguring bathrooms to be more inclusive of transgender people. Shauna Duffy, managing director of Providence’s AS220, is overseeing a renovation project that will include adding a gender-neutral restroom on its first floor.
 / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
IN TUNE: More and more, institutions are reconfiguring bathrooms to be more inclusive of transgender people. Shauna Duffy, managing director of Providence’s AS220, is overseeing a renovation project that will include adding a gender-neutral restroom on its first floor.
 / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Before starting a $4 million remodeling of its Empire Street complex in downtown Providence, leaders of the nonprofit community arts organization AS220 thought carefully about how the bathrooms should be set up.

They decided to create a “gender-neutral” bathroom on the first floor, as they put it, “to ensure we are accessible and inclusive.”

“We thought about: Who is our audience? … And how do we make them feel more comfortable?” said Shauna Duffy, AS220’s managing director.

Recognition of transgender issues is posing new challenges for businesses and other organizations. And they are discovering, in addition to the extra building costs involved, it’s a subject that can be a political minefield.

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Target Stores Inc. became the subject of a nationwide petition launched by the conservative American Family Association to boycott the giant retailer after Target’s transgender bathroom policy was disclosed in a company blog post in 2016.

At the time, the company said customers at its stores were welcome to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

Target’s sales slumped during the controversy. And while there was debate over whether the boycott had a significant effect, the company seemed to be responding when it said it would spend $20 million to ensure that all its stores also have single-user bathrooms.

Such bathrooms would offer a solution to the transgender conundrum: They are available to any Target customer who wants more privacy, including parents with small children or others who are uncomfortable with a public bathroom in which a transgender person is allowed.

Representatives at Target headquarters refused to discuss the issue when contacted recently by Providence Business News.

At AS220 in Providence, the issue has been less complicated. The complex at 115 Empire St. has had separate men’s and women’s bathrooms on the first floor, but the staff has been flexible about the gender rule depending on the circumstances, Duffy said.

Still, she said, occasionally a visitor to AS220 will ask for a gender-neutral bathroom and the organization wants to be as accommodating as possible. So, like Target, AS220 will create a third category of bathroom – the single-user approach for use by any gender.

There will be some cost involved, Duffy said, but it will only be a small part of the entire project.

‘We believe employers have a duty to accommodate transgender individuals.’
Steven Brown, American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island executive director

American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown said employers in the Ocean State should have bathroom policies that comply in spirit with the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act.

The original law “was amended to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender,” Brown said. “We believe employers have a duty to accommodate transgender individuals” and that includes letting them use a bathroom that conforms with their chosen gender identity.

One way to do that, he added, is to a have a “gender-neutral” bathroom with no gender designation. But for a business watching its bottom line, adding a third private bathroom usually comes at added expense.

Businesses offering only a private unisex bathroom can save square footage costs, but infrastructure costs per square foot – for plumbing, water supply, drains, exhaust fans, and sprinklers – are higher than for multiuser bathrooms, veteran building contractor Bruce Pitts told World News Group.

Public school officials in Providence have taken a liberal stance on the issue, allowing transgender students to choose a restroom based on the gender with which they identify or express themselves.

“Students who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth and who are uncomfortable choosing a male-segregated or female-segregated restroom may request the use of private restrooms,” the policy states.

Stephen Turner, president of Stephen Turner Inc., a building consulting firm in Providence, said gender-neutral or transgender bathrooms are a subject that sometimes comes up with his clients.

“We see it increasingly in higher education,” Turner said, noting that colleges and universities were sort of ahead of the trend years ago with their creation of co-ed dormitories in which bathrooms typically are shared by male and female students.

A growing number of public institutions and businesses are taking steps toward all-gender bathrooms. However, sometimes that merely involves changing a sign on a pre-existing single-user bathroom, and a sign that reads “transgender” or has such a symbol may have an unintended negative effect.

“That’s a start,” architect and Yale University professor Joel Sanders told Architectural Digest, but “our argument is that doing so marginalizes and stigmatizes, and a big part of what we’re trying to do is encourage mixing it up.”

Officials at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, for example, are already thinking along those lines.

Since 2015, the school has been working to “remove the binaries of [male/female] gender from as many restrooms as architecturally possible,” said Emma Montague, the school’s assistant director of diversity programs.

To date, the school has converted about 50 single-user bathrooms on campus to “gender-inclusive,” she said, with some “gender-inclusive” multiuser bathrooms in dining and residence halls.

Moreover, she added: “We’ve recently begun changing the signage on these restrooms, moving from labeling them as ‘gender-inclusive’ to labeling them simply as ‘restroom.’ ”