December 16, 2010 | by Renee Reopell
D.C. not enforcing bathroom law

Two transgender women were assaulted in the Petworth area in March after trying to use the women’s room at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, incidents like this are all too common, even in the District of Columbia. Often the presence of a transgender or gender non-conforming individual in the bathroom results in assault, insults and police intervention.

Everyone should have equal access to restrooms, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. In one of the largest studies done of the transgender community, 22 percent reported that they were denied access to appropriate bathrooms just in the workplace and 21 percent were not able to work out a suitable bathroom situation while at work.

District law attempts to rectify this problem. Washington, D.C. is one of 13 states and districts recognizing gender identity and expression in its area-wide non-discrimination policy. Part of our local law includes requiring single stall bathrooms to be gender neutral or unisex. According to chapter 8 of Title 4 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations, “All entities covered under the Act with single-occupancy restroom facilities shall use gender-neutral signage for those facilities.” Yet, if you’ve ever needed to relieve yourself in the D.C. area you know that this is often not the case.

Unfortunately, little has been done by the District of Columbia to implement this law.  The DC Transgender Coalition has been noticing this incongruence since 2006 when they thought this most celebrated victory finally meant peeing in peace. When weeks turned to months, and months turned to years, and restrooms remained gender specific, the DC Trans Coalition got active and reported these non-compliant bathrooms to the DC Office of Human Rights. One hundred and fifty-six restrooms were brought to the attention of the Office of Human Rights, but they followed up by sending letters to just 31 of those establishments and followed up in person with only 11. That’s a less than 10 percent follow-up rate. OHR reports that only one of the establishments originally reported by DCTC actually changed its bathroom signs.

Our government is not making this issue a priority. Since I have been at the DC Center I have visited 99 local businesses in the past three months. Seventy-one were found to be non-compliant. And of the 71 managers, general managers, owners and district managers I have spoken to, 70 of them had no idea about this D.C. regulation and believed they were, in fact, in compliance.

Further, new businesses that are opening are not being notified of the change in law.  Building inspectors are giving out inaccurate information about restrooms, and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has taken no interest in enforcing this law.

We all can play a role in addressing this issue. If you find a single stall restroom in the District of Columbia that is not gender-neutral, let us know. If you have a cell phone you can take a picture of the bathroom and e-mail it to  bathroomaccess@thedccenter.org.  Find the manager, general manager or owner and explain that law. Tell them this is a D.C. regulation and tell them why it’s important for the community.

Still, addressing this issue on a larger scale will require a greater commitment from the Office of Human Rights and D.C. Consumer Regulatory Affairs. We have passed a great law, but it is up to all of us to ensure that the District abides by it.

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