April 5, 2012 at 6:49 am EDT | by Mark Lee
Flushing common sense down the toilet

Fair warning: I’m taking on some sacred cows this week.

In the words of a long-time waiter, bartender and local gadfly with a wry sense of humor – “please place your tray in the upright and locked position, people . . . this is not a drill!”

It is, however, an example of a nonsensical public policy demand by local LGBT political activists, D.C. Council members all too eager to acquiesce without thoroughly vetting common-sense implications or evaluating city agency ability to effect implementation, and a small business community burdened once again with a mandate offering no real benefit to anyone.

Last week the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) posted a blog item on its website demanding that “DCRA enforce the law” and additionally referencing the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s “Bathroom Access Project.”

The GLAA online commentary elaborates: “Everybody poops. But transgender people frequently have to live in fear whenever they enter a public restroom,” indicating that they “are put at risk on a daily basis” and commending the D.C. Council “on recognizing the problem and requiring all single use bathrooms in the city be marked gender neutral.”

GLAA complains that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) is not enforcing the law.

Likewise, the D.C. Center blog includes breathless updates on the organization’s efforts to “help make D.C. safe for everyone to pee!” Sympathizers are directed to snap smartphone photos of local restaurants and other businesses without proper signage on single-stall bathroom doors in order that the group can file complaints with the city. The Center does acknowledge that most businesses are unaware of this nascent legal requirement.

OK, play along for a moment. Fair enough, let’s say. LGBT activists are concerned about transgender protection during public bathroom usage.

The problem? The law is irrelevant to the stated goal. Upon closer examination, it is not difficult to discover that this is much ado about not very much — and does nothing to actually address the issue. Worse, it merely represents a “let’s-do-something-for-the-sake-of-doing-something” political posturing, with no regard for either the law’s efficacy or the burden it places on city government, public institutions and small businesses, and other community facilities.

The applicable DCRA regulation, issued a little over a year ago in response to D.C. Council action at the behest of community advocates, only applies to single-occupancy bathrooms — the type common at smaller public institutions and small businesses, such as cafes and restaurants. We’ve all seen those, we’ve all used them. There are literally tens of thousands of them throughout the city.

There are three types of public restrooms — solitary single-user bathrooms, dual single-occupancy bathrooms oftentimes, but not always, individually marked for use by men or women, respectively, and multi-unit bathrooms simultaneously accommodating numbers of users and, as a result, marked for gender-specific use.

The latter is the most common type of configuration at most public venues of any size. The law does not apply to these types of bathroom facilities, and the purpose of the law is, as a practical matter, irrelevant to the other single-use facilities.

What danger do bathrooms pose when only one person is in it and the door is closed? Don’t transgender users select a single-user bathroom like everyone else — by gender identity, personal preference or based solely on availability at the moment?

Call me crazy, but I don’t see the point.

The only thing the law actually does is mandate a market for new commercial bathroom signage. It might as well be titled the “Universal Stick-Figure Gender Representations Standing Side-by-Side Plastic Signage Purchase and Installation Act.”

Is this what LGBT activism has been reduced to in Washington? Pushing government into requiring small businesses to post unisex signs on single-occupancy bathrooms, whether the bathrooms are not gender specific by virtue of being stand-alone, or utilize some other creative symbol or signage simply stating “Restroom”? How does this address the real problems that the transgender community actually confronts? Doesn’t it instead trivialize those issues?

How much effort is directed toward berating overwhelmed city agencies into enforcing yet another meaningless business rule so that politicos can feel all warm-and-fuzzy about what great goals they’ve achieved?

I don’t know about you, but it pisses me off.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

  • Transgender people are often harassed and threatened when they attempt to use restrooms, because they are perceived to be using “the wrong” restroom. Showing an awareness of this daily reality that transgender people face, and respecting the very real, practical problem this poses for them, is the minimum that we should be able to expect from a responsible commentary. (Disclosure: I was the principal writer of GLAA’s policy brief, “Agenda: 2012.”)

  • As I understand it, one issue is that no one is tasked with enforcing this law (except the Office of Human Rights, in response to a complaint). Since DCRA has building inspectors it seems like a simple enough thing to have the inspectors inform businesses of this requirement. Going a little further, as is suggested in the posting, inspectors could leave compliant signs so that the establishment is obeying the law when they leave site. The issue of access to bathrooms by transgender people might seem trivial, but unfortunately it is the issue used to scuttle legal protections for transgender people. The original posting pointed out that DCRA will be the subject of oversight hearings this month. That might be a place to sir opinions on this.

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