Houston restrooms push past HERO fears

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The politics over Houston's public potties are done for now, but some local businesses are embracing their own solution: gender-neutral facilities and single occupancy restrooms.

Opponents of HERO, the city's failed non-discrimination ordinance, employed a “No Men in Women’s Restrooms” smear campaign to stoke fear about transgender women using restrooms assigned to women. But some Houston businesses – as well as restaurants, museums and other institutions across the country – are realizing that the issue is pretty simple to address. So they are providing customers with a place to go without searching for their identity on a door. 

At Pass & Provisions, a posh two-tier restaurant in the Fourth Ward, men and women use one hand-washing space, but may retire to one of five stalls for toilet time. The arrangement was just a practical architectural decision, chef/owner Seth Siegel-Gardner tells the Houston Chronicle.

At The Pass & Provisions, two restaurants under one roof in the Fourth Ward, “We've had little 80-year-old ladies washing their hands next to Texans players,” said chef/owner Seth Siegel-Gardner.

Two of the stalls are labeled “Men” and three are labeled “Women,” Siegel-Gardner said, but “they're marked with chalk, so I guess they're all optional.” The restrooms weren't designed with gender or politics in mind; it was just the arrangement that “made the most sense, design-wise.”

Other establishments have labeled lavatories with a combination of symbols, so that patrons know where they can go – or more specifically, that they can go anywhere they choose. The University of Houston-Downtown uses a sign that combines a male stick figure, a female stick figure, a figure that is both, and a wheelchair, according to the Chronicle.

UHD opened a single-user restroom on its third floor last year, after reaching out to transgender students to ask about their experiences on campus. John Hudson, director for the school's Center for Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, heard that students traveled to other floors where a professor would guard the door while they used the restroom. One student refused to use any of the campus restroom facilities.

The single-user restroom also provided a place for student parents to go with their children, as well as privacy for students and staff with medical issues.

“And, of course, transgender students and staff can go there and be free of harassment,” Hudson said.

At North Italia restaurant on Post Oak, three of the five private restrooms are marked Either/Or.

Universities and colleges such as Johns Hopkins are leading the charge for gender-neutral restrooms, while cities like Seattle, Berkeley, Santa Fe, Austin and Philadelphia have passed laws requiring single-user all-gender restrooms. The University of Michigan maintains a map of inclusive restrooms, while Philadelphia has an online Gotta Go Guide showing where to find a gender-neutral facility and the Refuge Restrooms app is helping people across the country find a place to go.

The trend is big enough that it is challenging to figure out what symbols work best on signs and how to squeeze more facilities into architectural designs, according to Curbed.

A Texan is helping to find a solution to the signage issue. Sam Killermann (top photo), a social activist and graphic artist in Austin, designed a sign that simply relays the purpose of the room – with a graphic of a toilet – and words to say who should use the facilities: “All Gender Restroom.” He released the design without copyright last year, allowing building managers everywhere to use it, including in the Austin airport.

“I have received more emotional reactions to this sign than any other work I've ever done,” he says. “I mean people writing 3,000-4,000-word emails. There's this thread of the importance of tiny things that can mean everything, how much visible recognition can mean to a transgender person. And it's still something I take for granted. I have no idea how great it is to be able to use a restroom anywhere I go.”

Businesses and institutions looking to accommodate customers seem headed toward more inclusive facilities, rather than separation.

In New York, for example, the 85-year-old Whitney Museum of American Art went to gender-neutral restrooms in when the institution moved to a new building this year, according to the New York Times.

“We invited artists of all gender identifications in,” said Danielle Linzer, the director of access and community programs, “and we heard loud and clear that it was something they really needed access to. Rather than being euphemistic, we decided to be direct.”

The signs at the new building say “All Gender Restroom,” and Ms. Linzer has observed women wondering aloud, “You mean I can go in the men’s room?”


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