West Hollywood Solves the Gender-Neutral Bathroom Dilemma (In Spite of Itself)

Opinion: In taking steps to make public restrooms truly private, the WeHo City Council delivers downright heroic legislation

Have you ever used a public toilet in Europe? It’s fantastic. The stalls in public facilities are enclosed with…doors! Actual doors that reach from the floor to the ceiling! You could go a lifetime without leaving America and never know what it’s like to live in civilization.

Now, the city of West Hollywood is poised to lead the country in joining the modern world with the imminent passage of a new ordinance requiring such privacy for all bathroom stalls in new business developments and major remodels.

All of this is in the fine print of a bill that touts requiring gender-neutral multi-stall bathrooms (and specifically outlaws separate facilities for men and women) in such outfits. In effect, the bill doesn’t make multi-stall bathrooms “gender-neutral”; rather, it neutralizes the meaning of “multi-stall bathroom” by making every bathroom, in effect, single occupancy. What appears at first glance to be a government body taking a stand on a cultural question—how we think about gender—is, in fact, a pragmatic solution to a dilemma and evolving national debate. 

On one side of this debate are people who think gender is “socially constructed”—that our identities are almost like roles we play, learned from birth and socially reinforced. Many in this camp espouse the idea—as evidenced by the existence of transgender people—that one’s biology is often incidental to one’s gender identity and that pervasiveness of the gender binary (the widely held notion that people are either male or female, and that these identities have inherent meaning) is malignant and damaging to those who don’t identify as one or the other.

On the other side are those who insist that gender is rooted in biological sex—as evidenced by the fact that for the overwhelming majority, gender and sex do not conflict. (The first camp would argue that this is because we have learned and been conditioned to perform our assigned genders.) To the second camp, the segregation of sexes isn’t arbitrary, but based in a tangible, objective reality.

When it comes to the bathroom dilemma, these two sides have conflicting agendas. The idea that we should stop separating bathrooms by gender is based in a legitimate concern for making daily life easier for trans people—especially for people who don’t “pass” as the sex with which they identify—and an interest in not alienating those who don’t identify as one gender or the other. Conversely, the fairly universal practice of separating facilities by gender stems from the fact that people generally do not wish to take a crap around members of the opposite sex. You can chalk this up to a troglodytic fixation on the body parts of one’s fellow humans, if you like. The fact remains, bathing and evacuating are activities people tend not to like to do in mixed company. 

Yet the idea of moving away from the gender binary has clearly gained some traction in the public consciousness—volunteering one’s pronouns is perhaps the clearest example of this—and this shift came mostly without governmental intervention. In coming down on one side of this issue, rather than leaving businesses to reflect the social mores of their customers (in WeHo, the queerest city on earth, no less), the City Council might have risked imposing its views on gender on the public at large—much like Republican lawmakers, with their odious anti-trans bathroom bills, seek to impose their ideology on all. 

It doesn’t help that the West Hollywood City Council’s discussion of the subject is so divorced from the central issue, which is how to balance the competing interests of trans/non-binary public bathroom users and their cisgender counterparts. Rather, it’s presented as a moral crusade. In a May 3, 2021, Council meeting, West Hollywood Councilmember Sepi Shyne (and current mayor pro tempore), the bill’s co-sponsor, along with Councilmember John Erickson, noted the impetus for the measure. While taking a tour of the new auditorium in West Hollywood Park, Shyne said, “They showed us the multi-stall bathrooms. And then I asked[], ‘Where’s the single-stall bathrooms?’ And I was told, ‘Oh, they’re downstairs.’ … “That was just a complete injustice.” The rest of the council solemnly nodded along with this sentiment, quite obviously reluctant to point out that as far as “injustices” go, having to transport oneself to another floor to take a pee might not warrant municipal intervention.

Shyne’s perspective seems to be that locating a gender-neutral facility on a different floor isn’t just a matter of logistics but an act of ideological warfare. This is likely rooted in the idea—referenced in a staff report on the measure—that anything whatsoever that suggests “difference” is inherently hostile: “Single-user restrooms can be isolating and mark people as different if that is the only gender-neutral option.” Can you imagine if, say, the disabled community was as exacting? If they demanded, for fear of being marked “different,” not just wheelchair-accessible toilet stalls, but nothing but wheelchair-accessible toilet stalls?

After Shyne’s testimony, Councilmember John D’Amico attempted to point out that outlawing gender-specific bathrooms would in fact violate California plumbing codes (a bill has since been passed allowing municipalities to override these codes). He then started philosophizing: “They don’t assign gender to air-conditioning ducts, they don’t assign gender to door handles, they don’t assign gender to window sashes, but toilets have gender assigned to them.” Of course, no one is assigning gender to toilets; it’s the people using the toilets who have genders. Does he really not see this distinction? 

This is the kind of willful sophistry that gets eyes rolling at attempts to make the world a more accommodating place for trans people. One does not have to abandon the idea of gender or pretend that the existence of a gender-neutral bathroom in addition to men’s and women’s rooms is a moral abomination, to come to a practical solution to making bathrooms accommodating for our trans and non-binary communities. (Of course, locker rooms present a thornier issue—one that, thankfully, I am not responsible for figuring out.)

By making all stalls private, like they ought to be in any civilized society, West Hollywood seems to have figured out how to fix this problem, in spite of itself. And yes, it turns out the solution to this whole thing was a piece of technology we’ve known about for quite some time. It’s called a door.

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