Austin City Council to consider requiring gender-neutral bathrooms

Chris Riley posed the following question to his fellow Austin City Council members this week: If men and women use the same bathroom at home, why can’t businesses make a particular restroom available for any gender, assuming only one person at a time can use it?

Using that logic, Riley and two council colleagues think Austin should ban some men’s and women’s restrooms and require single-occupant restrooms to be gender neutral. The council will discuss the proposal at Thursday’s meeting.

It is intended to extend city protections for transgendered people, for whom “gendered restroom facilities can present uncomfortable and even dangerous situations,” according to a resolution from Riley and Council Members Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman.

The change wouldn’t apply to bathrooms with multiple stalls. The multistall facilities at City Hall, the Long Center for the Performing Arts and many of Austin’s restaurants would be unaffected. Applying gender neutrality to large public bathrooms could force women to use a stall next to a man, and vice versa, which Riley doesn’t want to do.

But any restroom with one stall — say, a bathroom at the back of a bar, or a single-seater at a city park — would have to be available to any gender. In some cases, that could shorten the wait, and it also could make it easier for a parent or caregiver helping someone of the opposite gender.

“In my mind, this is basic and straightforward,” Riley said at a Tuesday council workshop. “Really, we’re just extending the concept (in home bathrooms) to public restrooms.”

Thursday’s vote would be a first step. If council members say yes, the city staff would be required to meet with various groups and draft the ordinances that would make the change official, perhaps bringing it back to the council by late September.

That is time and effort that would be better spent on other issues, said Roger Borgelt, who tracks city issues for the Travis County Republican Party.

“We have more important things to deal with,” Borgelt said. “I do not understand why this is an issue. There’s just nothing in our laws … that give us a 100 percent right to be 100 percent comfortable all the time.”

Austin would be the first Texas city to enact such a requirement, which is sought by the Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT-advocacy group. Washington, D.C., already requires single-stall public bathrooms to be gender neutral, and the city of Philadelphia enacted a broad set of rules in November to make it “the most LGBT-friendly” city in the world, including gender-neutral bathrooms at city facilities. Many colleges have adopted or are working on rules for gender-neutral bathrooms.

Riley’s resolution states the city would be continuing its goal of protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. As gay rights have gained wider acceptance nationally, Austin’s regulations generally have become more pro-LGBT, after a sometimes bumpy period. In 1993, the city extended health insurance benefits to same-sex partners and unmarried heterosexual couples, only to see voters repeal the decision a year later, and then restore the benefits in 2006.

San Antonio passed a package of LGBT-advocacy rules last fall. Those in turn spawned complaints of religious infringements and threats of a lawsuit from state Attorney General Greg Abbott, who later decided against a legal challenge.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell worried the city risked overregulating bathrooms. To make his point, Leffingwell asked if the to-be-formed stakeholder group could create a proposal that dictated whether the term restroom, bathroom, loo or other term is mandated. Riley said that wasn’t his intent and that the ordinance should be minimally intrusive.

Leffingwell said several other issues must be sorted out before he supports an ordinance. He said the city worked with the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which supports the change, but as of Tuesday hadn’t approached the various other chambers of commerce to see what their members think.

“Mainly small businesses will be affected,” Leffingwell said, wondering aloud if office buildings that aren’t open to the public have to comply with the change. (The question hasn’t been settled.)

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about what (the proposal) is, and what it is not,” Leffingwell said. “I think some of the intent … needs to be communicated.”

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