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Starbucks gender-neutral restrooms: No plans to expand beyond D.C.

October 8, 2010 - 10:30 AM
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A District Starbucks switches out its bathroom signs last week (Photo: TBD Staff)

Last week, Starbucks locations across the District of Columbia began the process of making their restrooms gender neutral. Fifty-two District coffee shops will be removing the “Men” and “Women” signs on their single-stall facilities this month in order to comply with gender identity protections in the D.C. Human Rights Act. Bonus: San Franciscans are already jealous of our coffee chain toilets!

“Should’ve happened here first,” declared SFist’s Jay Barmann, before congratulating D.C. LGBT activists on the win. “[I]t's a little surprising this didn't happen in San Francisco first, given that we have one of the largest and most concentrated transgendered populations in the country."

Not really: What San Francisco doesn't have is a law mandating gender-neutral facilities in the city's public accommodations, like coffee shops.

And that's precisely why Starbucks is switching out 52 restroom signs in D.C. instead of San Francisco. "When we became aware that our bathroom signs did not comply with the District of Columbia law regarding gender-neutral restroom signage, we took immediate action to change them," a Starbucks spokesperson told TBD. "We appreciate the Office of Human Rights' willingness to work with us to make sure our stores are in compliance with the law and that all our customers feel welcome."

But as for Starbucks outside the District line: "We believe this is the first community we do business in with such a law," the spokesperson said.

Trans people often face harassment or ejection for using a public restroom consistent with their gender identity. Since 2007, D.C. human rights law has attempted to alleviate that discrimination by mandating that all public restrooms be equally accessible to trans customers. For businesses already equipped with single-stall facilities—like many local Starbucks locations—complying with the law is easy. The single stalls must simply bear "gender-neutral signage."

Several jurisdictions around the country, including New Jersey and Iowa, mandate that public restrooms be equally available to trans people, but include no regulations on single-stall neutrality. A couple of cities come close: San Francisco "strongly urges that all single-use bathrooms be designated gender neutral (unisex) and that all places of public accommodation and employment provide a gender neutral bathroom option." And New York City "recommends that, where single occupancy restrooms are available, they be designated as 'gender neutral.'"

According to Harper Jean Tobin, policy counsel for the National Center for Transgender Equality, D.C. is the only jurisdiction to actually enforce such a regulation. "Of course, 'recommends' does not mean 'requires,' so technically Starbucks is correct," Tobin says. "However, given how simple it is to follow these recommendations, there no reason for a business like Starbucks not to do the right and smart thing in those cities too. Moreover, a company that follows these recommendations is in a better position to ensure compliance with general nondiscrimination laws existing in many jurisdictions now, because there is no opportunity for anyone to question whether someone is in the 'right' restroom."

A Starbucks spokesperson didn't reveal any plans to expand the gender-neutral stalls past the District. But a campaign couldn't hurt: "of course," the spokesperson said, "we are open to suggestions from our customers regarding how we can better serve them."

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