- Starbucks complies with D.C. bathroom law (Photo: Associated Press)
Starting Monday, local Starbucks locations will begin swapping out the "Men's" and "Women's" bathroom signs on each of the coffee chain's restroom facilities inside the District of Columbia. Within a month, all 52 of D.C.'s Starbucks single-stall bathrooms will be gender-neutral.
The switch comes after campaigning efforts by local LGBT groups the DC Trans Coalition and the DC Center, who are pushing all local businesses to comply with a little-known regulation in D.C. law ensuring that all public restrooms are equally accessible to transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
In 2006, the D.C. Human Rights Act was amended to include gender identity as a protected class under the law. Nearly four years ago, the D.C. Council passed regulations ensuring that public accommodations—including public restrooms—were truly equally accessible to trans people. According to the law, District businesses must "allow individuals the right to use gender-specific restrooms and other gender-specific facilities such as dressing rooms, homeless shelters, and group homes that are consistent with their gender identity or expression."
Laws like this one are necessary for keeping trans people safe while engaging in the most basic of human activities. In a 2009 survey conducted by the DC Trans Coalition, 68 percent of local transgender and gender-nonconforming residents reported being "denied access to, verbally harassed in, and/or physically assaulted in public bathrooms."
But these laws can also be difficult to enforce; they require a trans person to be harassed for using a bathroom, prove that the harassment was based on their gender identity, and then pursue a complaint with D.C.'s Office of Human Rights. So D.C.'s law includes a helpful short-cut: Businesses equipped with single-stall facilities must forgo gender-specific signage altogether, instead using "gender-neutral signage" that makes restrooms available to people regardless of gender—for example, "replacing signs that indicate 'Men' and 'Women' with signs that say 'Restroom.'" Enforcement is as easy as opening an establishment's door.
And yet, "ladies" and "gentlemen" signs on single-occupancy restrooms proliferate across the District. So last year, the DC Trans Coalition launched a campaign to encourage local businesses to actually comply with this law. The DC Center joined suit in August of this year with its Bathroom Access Project. By September, the project had visited 50 local establishments. Thirty-three of them weren't complying with the D.C. law, and 26 of those were reported to D.C.'s Office of Human Rights. Of the 25 establishments that the Office of Human Rights contacted about the violation, only nine establishments changed their signs as a result of that complaint.
So Starbucks' 52-restroom-change is a boon for the project, which has gained momentum among LGBT activist but has struggled for traction among local businesses. In a press release, OHR called the change "a significant step forward for individuals whose identity or behavior differs from stereotypical or traditional gender expectations." OHR Director Gustavo Velasquez added that Starbucks' example should send a message to "the entire business community to learn more about their responsibilities under the Human Rights Act and to become compliant if they have not already done so."