Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s gender-neutral bathroom ordinance is a small step, and a big deal

Gender-neutral bathrooms await students

This video shows what gender-neutral bathrooms look like at Rising Hill Elementary in Kansas City, Mo. Next week the Tacoma City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance requiring single-occupancy restrooms to be labeled as gender neutral.
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This video shows what gender-neutral bathrooms look like at Rising Hill Elementary in Kansas City, Mo. Next week the Tacoma City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance requiring single-occupancy restrooms to be labeled as gender neutral.

Like many, Jen Haggard offered a story — a story about a bathroom.

It’s a small story, she acknowledged, but also one that “happens every day if you don’t look the rule.”

It’s also just one small example of why a decision the Tacoma City Council is poised to make is so important.

Next week, the council is expected to approve an ordinance requiring single-occupancy restrooms to be labeled as gender neutral.

When it passes, it will mean all new or existing single-occupancy restrooms “in places of public accommodation, facilities of the City, and facilities of taxing authorities located within the City” will be need to be labeled as such.

Haggard’s bathroom story takes place at a Target, as she and her 3-year-old daughter waited in line to use the women’s restroom.

A mother and a daughter waited along with them.

The child, Haggard recalls, looked up and was captivated by Haggard’s hair and appearance. The hair is short, and her look eschews gender norms.

Tugging on her mother’s leg, first the child wondered aloud why a boy was in line to use the women’s bathroom.

Offering an “embarrassed smile,” the mother reassured her child that Haggard was, in fact, a woman.

The curious child persisted, however.

Next, she wanted to know about Haggard’s hair.

Could women have short hair, she asked her mother?

Yes, the increasingly flustered parent quietly assured.

Finally, the girl got her mother’s attention one last time, proclaiming that — if women are allowed to have short hair, which seemed to land as something of a revelation to the youngster — she wanted short hair, too.

That’s when it happened.

The mother, as Haggard recalled, “Looked at me in this look of terror.”

Then, she “grabbed her child and literally ran out the door.”

“It’s a daily experience,” Haggard admitted, before telling a few more stories, including ones with violent conclusions, like the times she’s been verbally or physically assaulted while trying to use the bathroom.

The truth is, stories like this are unfortunately common. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 US Transgender Survey, 59 percent of respondents avoided using a public bathroom in the last year, citing the fear of confrontation.

Meanwhile, 24 percent reported that someone had questioned or challenged their presence in a restroom, nearly one in 10 said they had been denied them access to a restroom, and one in eight reported being “verbally harassed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted” — simply for using a restroom.

Soon, hopefully, tales like these will become far less common in Tacoma — which is exactly the point.

In terms of implementation, it’s worth noting that the changes that Tacoma’s gender neutral bathroom ordinance will make will hardly be monumental. Signs will have to be changed at existing single-occupancy restrooms throughout the city, and all new single-occupancy bathrooms will need to be gender neutral from the get-go.

For a whole host of people, however — from transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, to parents of small children and the disabled — it will make a big difference in how they navigate the city.

“For me, this is about creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all folks,” said City Councilman Ryan Mello.

“I think the larger picture is, it’s really a simple catch up.”

That’s undoubtedly true, and it’s one of the reasons that Pride at Work — an ALF-CIO-recognized nonprofit with chapters across the country, including Pierce County, that represents LGBTQ union members and their allies — began pushing for the ordinance earlier this year.

Haggard is president of the Pierce County chapter, and said that, together with the Tacoma’s Human Rights Commission and the Office of Equity and Human Rights, changing Tacoma’s outdated municipal code became a priority after learning that language in that code made creating gender neutral bathrooms more difficult than it should be.

Mello and Haggard stressed that the gender neutral bathroom ordinance — which is modeled after a similar ordinance from Bainbridge Island — isn’t just an issue for transgender and gender non-conforming communities.

Rather, it’s an issue that affects everyone, whether you have a small child or a disability, or you simply want to live in a place where everyone feels welcome.

Mello and Haggard also said that, given the current national climate — where hate crimes are on the rise and civil rights are under attack — taking a stand, and being proactive, is the right side of history for Tacoma to be on.

“For a few years now, we’ve been fighting the sort of opposite of this, with folks trying to take away any laws protecting transgender people, and doing the extreme opposite,” Mello said. “We’ve been in reactive and protection mode of our basic anti-discrimination policies.”

“Now that we’ve beaten back those rollbacks,” he added, “we’re able to focus on moving forward and focus on doing something proactive, insuring that these spaces are even more inclusive.”

The gender neutral bathroom ordinance is a one small step in that direction.

But it’s also a big deal.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.