I never thought I would see the day when there would actually be an imperative to create gender-neutral restrooms.

I have created my own all-gender restrooms for years. When women’s facilities are occupied at concert halls or in restaurants, I have no problem using the men’s restroom.

Women’s restrooms always fill up faster than men’s. The lines for women’s bathrooms are often long when the nearby men’s restrooms are virtually empty with no waiting lines.

A gender-neutral bathroom at Glazer's Coffee in Honolulu.
A gender-neutral bathroom at Glazer’s Coffee in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But the new push for gender-neutral restrooms is about something more serious than allowing women speedy access to toilets. It’s part of a larger civil rights movement to provide safe and welcoming toilet facilities for everyone on the gender spectrum including transgender individuals and trans people who are transitioning from one gender to another.

This push for fair treatment is going on across the country as people who do not conform to stereotypical notions of masculine and feminine are increasingly seeking accommodation on sports teams, in locker rooms, and in restrooms at schools, universities and other public places.

It has become the new fight for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community now that the issues of same-sex marriage and military service for openly gay personnel are resolved.

Some transgender individuals say the issue needs attention because they have been harassed and bullied when they try to use a locker room or restroom of the sex they were not assigned on their birth certificate.

State law on the restroom accommodation issue is not clearly written in black and white. The same could be said about laws in many other parts of the country, judging by the amount of litigation going on.

Hawaii has a pubic accommodations statute that protects individuals from discrimination, including discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  This law requires accommodation for all gender identities in places that are open to the public including restaurants, hotels, stores, and parks and also facilities like gyms and health clubs.

Some transgender individuals say the issue needs attention because they have been harassed and bullied when they try to use a locker room or restroom of the sex they were not assigned on their birth certificate.

But attorney Rebecca Copeland, who is the mother of a transgender teen, says that although Hawaii law does consider separate facilities for males and females, such as restrooms and dressing rooms, it has provisions in place to protect a person’s privacy. So it might be possible to exclude a person from a restroom if another person’s right to privacy is violated.

Copeland says she is unaware of any Hawaii law currently on the books to specifically protect a person’s right to use a restroom based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. She takes the position that any Hawaii law that protects against sex discrimination would also apply to individuals who are transgender.

Federal law seems to be clearer on the restroom and locker room issue, at least when it comes to schools and training facilities. Title IX, the federal statute that prevents discrimination in schools receiving federal funding, firmly states that equal accommodation in all school facilities and activities applies to everyone, including transgender and non-gender-conforming students.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, director of communications for the state Department of Education, says the DOE has been gathering information on what to do about restroom and locker room issues for the past couple of years.

“But this year there is a stronger stance to create guidelines that we can bring to the Board of Education for consideration,” she says.

Dela Cruz says there’s there is more urgency now because school principals across the state are seeking advice as more students are coming forward as transgender.

Dela Cruz says, “We have to provide bathrooms in which every one of our students can feel safe.”

She says while waiting for specific guidelines, schools are handling restroom needs on a case-by-case basis. Transgender students have been mainly accommodated by allowing them to use the school staff’s gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms.

Dela Crux says the DOE is moving carefully to make sure all students and parents understand and are comfortable with the guidelines that are created, and that they hold up legally and do not promote reverse discrimination.

“It is uncharted territory, “ she says.

James Bott, a DOE social worker, is helping the department develop its statewide policy.

Bott understands better than others what it is like for a child to feel different from his peers and how important it is for Hawaii’s schools to make all children — no matter how they identify their sexuality — feel welcome and safe.

Bott has an 8-year-old adopted son who since a very early age has considered himself to be female rather than male. Shortly after the adoption, his then 6-year-old asked, “Can I get a vagina?”

Bott says he joked back to his son, “Not today. Maybe in the future.”

He says his child dresses like a girl when he is at home but the child decided to go to school as a boy, dress in boy’s clothes and use the boy’s restroom after he was teased by an older student.

Bott says, “We are working to improve the climate in schools for all students. LGBT students are a small minority, but if they feel safe, they will want to come to school. Their test scores will go up, and the school environment will improve for everyone. Every study has shown that.”

The University of Hawaii is moving ahead to create restrooms comfortable for all gender identities on its 10 campuses.

Administrator Camaron Miyamoto says, “I am really excited. By spring, we expect to have new gender neutral signs for 10 individual stall restrooms on the Manoa campus.”

Miyamoto is the coordinator of LGBT Student Services at UH Manoa.

He says the new restroom sign will simply say: “Restroom.”

But won’t that be too vague? Restroom for whom?

Miyamoto says the UH will roll out an education campaign when the restrooms get their new signs to make it clear the facilities are open for everyone — male, female and those somewhere in between.

He says his main disappointment is that it has taken the UH so long to get on board with the idea of gender-neutral facilities.

“I wish they had signs for the restrooms in 2009 when the university expanded its non-discrimination policy to include gender identity and gender expression,” he says.

Some critics claim that allowing transgender individuals to use the same bathrooms as people of the sex with which they identify will open the way for sexual predators pretending to be transgender to endanger others in restrooms.

Earlier this month in Houston, voters repealed a city ordinance that provided sweeping protections to 15 different classes including transgenders. The measure was killed after opponents successfully waged a fear campaign to scare many voters into thinking the law’s broad protection provisions, including restroom accommodations, would increase the number of sexual assaults.

Miyamoto thinks such criticism is ridiculous.

“Some people worry about safety, but the only ones who have experienced harassment in restrooms are transsexuals,” he says.

University of Hawaii media spokesman Dan Meisenzahl says all campuses are gearing up to include more gender neutral, individually locked restrooms in new and remodeled buildings.

“Most of our buildings were built decades ago. This is not something we can just magically make happen overnight,” says Meisenzahl.

As least six of the UH’s 10 campuses already have gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms that are open to students and visitors, but there is not yet a formal university-wide policy on the issue.

State government offers restroom accommodation to state employees of all sexual orientations and gender identifications. A detailed memo clearly outlines how to treat state employees across the gender spectrum. But to date, the state has done little to provide gender neutral restrooms for visitors.

Jimmy Hisano, Central Services manager for the state Department of Accounting and General Services Division, says there are currently no gender-neutral restrooms for use by the general public in all the state facilities that DAGS manages.

Hawaii state Rep. Cindy Evans says she will reintroduce a bill next year that she wrote in 2014 to require the state to fund a one-year pilot project to designate three restrooms in the State Capitol gender neutral.

The bill never got a hearing when it was introduced, but Evans thinks it may get more traction now that the gender-neutral bathroom issue has become mainstream.

Evans says she was inspired to author the bill because she had a transgender legislative clerk and became aware of the difficulties transgender people face when dealing with single-gender restrooms.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s communications people did not respond to questions I sent by email to find out what the city is doing to address the need for restroom facilities for transgender individuals.

City Parks and Recreation spokesman Jon Hennington says it is an issue the parks department has to address but it has not officially discussed yet.

“This is an issue that is not going to go away,” says Hennington. “It is important to consider the needs of the transgender community, which is sizable here. If we can create space that is comfortable for everyone, it is a good thing. We need to look at how other communities have addressed the gender restroom question and take some ideas out to the community for discussion.”

Twenty years from now, it will probably seem quaint and old-fashioned that we once had restrooms only for males or females. The world is becoming increasingly inclusive and tolerant of all gender identifications.

Bott, the father of the transgender child, says, “It is important to make all people feel comfortable and valued. You don’t wake up one day and say you want to be transgender. Your brain tells you early on you are in the wrong body. It is something nobody would ever select. Life is difficult enough as it is.”

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