Dean Spade was followed into a Grand Central men’s bathroom by a police officer who demanded to see his ID, pushed him against a wall and then arrested him as he tried to leave. Pauline Park emerged from the women’s bathroom in the Manhattan Mall and found herself surrounded by security guards who demanded to know whether she was a man or a woman.
Such incidents illustrate the need for safe access to bathrooms and other sex-segregated facilities for transgender and genderqueer people. New York City activists are both working to end the discrimination that transgender people face when using sex-segregated bathrooms, and advocating for more gender-neutral bathrooms.
Opponents of gender-neutral bathrooms play on “a generalized fear of a male rapist putting on a dress to go into a women’s room,” says Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). “I’ve never heard of such a case. In fact, it is transgender people who are vulnerable to harassment and assault whether they use the women’s or men’s bathrooms.”
Park noted that gender-neutral bathrooms benefit not just transgender people, but also caretakers of children, elderly and disabled people of the opposite sex.
The New York City Council passed a transgender rights bill in 2002, after a campaign led by NYAGRA. The bill amended New York City human rights law to explicitly protect transgender and gender-variant people from discrimination under city law for the first time. In 2004, the New York City Commission released the Human Rights Guidelines Regarding Gender Identity Discrimination – legally binding regulations that specifically articulate the statute’s application in particular situations, such as the use of public bathrooms. Park and another transgender woman who brought complaints against the security firm at the Manhattan Mall won the first publicly announced settlement in a case of transgender-related discrimination since the adoption of these guidelines.
Riley Snorton, founder of All Gender Bathrooms NYC, says the guidelines are just the beginning.
“The amazing aspect of this work is that you get to be an integral part of your community by making requests of places that you patronize to let them know that their facilities are a problem,” says Snorton.
Snorton envisions that most of this work will take place in communities of color and include places not traditionally considered when policies such as the Human Rights Law are implemented: homeless shelters and community spaces, for example. He wants to collaborate with homeless advocates who are also working on bathroom accessibility.
Other efforts to create safe bathrooms in New York City include the work of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), an organization fighting discrimination against gender non-conforming people. SRLP staff conducts trainings throughout the country, and has collaborated with a transgender filmmaker to produce Toilet Training. This film addresses the persistent discrimination, harassment and violence that people who transgress gender norms face in gender-segregated bathrooms.
SRLP is currently working with the Human Resources Administration (HRA) – a department of the New York City government that encompasses hundreds of agencies and offices – to create a best-practices guide for transgender clients and employees.
“SRLP believes that the priority is to start with the state,” says Dean Spade, SRLP staff attorney. “State discrimination affects the most vulnerable people, such as prisoners and homeless people who live in or access facilities where the Human Rights Law might not apply.”