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The gender-neutral bathroom debate

Gender Neutral bathrooms by Flickr User mar2a_13, used under CC by-NC-SA 2.0/resized and cropped


Sam Bass is the principal at Miraloma Elementary in San Francisco. He’s often talking with parents, and he says he once had a conversation about how some students on the gender spectrum were not comfortable going to the bathroom at Miraloma.

“In fact, one of them was having difficulty so much that he was wetting himself instead of going to the bathroom,” says Bass. “That's just not okay.”

When the school went through renovations, a teacher proposed something new: instead of having “boys” and “girls” single-stall bathrooms, why not make them both “gender neutral”? Bass says it was pretty simple: they just changed the signs. And when people learned to change their language identifying the restrooms, student needs were met.

“You know, student need drives every decision you make at a school,” Bass says. “That was what our students needed and that's what we did and that's what we believe in here.”

The City of San Francisco Board of Supervisors believes in that, too. Beginning next month, the city will require single-stall restrooms in existing public buildings to be made all-gender and any new buildings must have at least one all-gender bathroom on each floor. The author of the legislation, Supervisor David Campos, says the city’s been thinking about all-gender restrooms for a long time. He and his staff actually found an old memo from the Department of Building Inspection that talked about the idea. But it took a conversation with Theresa Sparks - the transgender former Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission - to really get the wheels turning and the legislation drafted. Mayor Ed Lee recently appointed Sparks as his “senior advisor on transgender issues.”

“The timing was such that when we weren’t thinking about it," Campos says. "These states, like North Carolina and others were taking some pretty horrible steps back in terms of the rights of transgender men and women. We weren't planning on it, but it turns out, that as we were talking about giving people more rights, other states were talking about taking rights away.”

Bring in Senator Buck Newton of North Carolina. Newton authored HB2, the piece of legislation that not only prevents transgender people from using restrooms for the gender they identify with, but blocks cities and counties from passing protections against LGBT discrimination. While that may seem surprising here in the Bay area, it’s a popular position nationally, according to recent polls. In the last few months, there have been more than 100 active bills in 22 states affecting LGBT rights in some way. These have led to reprimands by the federal government as well as companies threatening to take their business away. And they’ve certainly angered lawmakers like San Francisco Supervisor David Campos.

“The idea that someone can use their own religious views to discriminate against someone goes against the very basic foundation of our country,” says Campos. “Something like this has ramifications that go beyond adults, because some of the folks who are most impacted can be children. And, I would imagine that a basic tenet of who we are as a country is that we want the safety of every child, and in the end that's what this is about.”

Back at Miraloma Elementary, Principal Sam Bass says he’s received a few letters from other places in the country, letters from people expressing their religious disdain, though he’s just ignored them.

“People don't have full perspectives of why we do what we do, and they think that they do,” Bass says. “If they were here and they met some of our students who are on the gender spectrum they would feel the heartbreak knowing that that child is wetting their pants because they don't feel safe going to the bathroom.”

Even though that’s no longer the case for the kids at Miraloma, the debate continues around the country.