D.C. Bathroom Signs: Ignored By Many, Hated By Some, Expensive, and Possibly Illegal
When Omar Miskinyar opened 14th Street NW nightlife spot Policy earlier this year, he invested in the unexpected. Inside the sprawling restaurant, bar, and lounge, ornate chandeliers hang below exposed pipes and ducts. Graffiti by artist Andrew Funk blazes across the tasteful taupe walls. Cherry-red patent-leather booths ring a bar with a wall of flat-screen televisions. And rather than pants vs. triangle, “ladies” vs. “gents,” or “Barbie” vs. “Ken,” the doors to the restrooms are marked with a pair of swirled Plexiglas exclamation points. One is blue, the other is pink. They’re the size of human beings.
Human beings, however, do not always fit the color scheme. That raises something of a grammatical problem for Miskinyar: Policy’s subtly gendered punctuation may be inconsistent with a little-known provision of D.C. human rights law.
Since 2006, the D.C. Human Rights Act has protected transgender men and women from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations—including restrooms. Since public bathrooms are traditionally gender-specific, gender nonconforming clientele have faced harassment, attack, and even arrest for picking the “wrong” gendered stall. Restaurants with multi-stall bathrooms segregated by gender can work to eliminate discrimination by ensuring that even when rooms are marked for ladies or gentlemen, they’re free of harassment for the spot’s gender-variant pissers.
Miskinyar says he would be happy to open his pink and blue doors to a unisex flow. “We’re in a predominantly gay neighborhood, so why not?” he says. “When it gets busy, the restrooms are effectively unisex anyway—everyone just goes straight to the first open stall.” But restaurants equipped with single-stall restrooms, like Policy, are required to go a bit further in ending discrimination—they must eliminate the gendered bathroom sign entirely. According to the regulations, “All entities covered under the Act with single-occupancy restroom facilities shall use gender-neutral signage for those facilities (for example, by replacing signs that indicate ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ with signs that say ‘Restroom’).”
That solution wouldn’t be painless for Miskinyar—his four gender-specific bathroom doors came at $3,000 a pop. But Miskinyar’s exclamation marks aren’t out the door yet—a suggestive color scheme may not be explicit enough to count as discrimination. “I wouldn’t think we’d have to change the doors,” says Miskinyar. “The color is all in how you perceive it.” Since this is the first year that D.C.’s Office of Human Rights has attempted to enforce the rule, agency reps say that subtly gendered signs—like Policy’s—may fall into a legal gray area.
While local business owners and the OHR may disagree over forced redecoration, the unisex single stall is a welcome fixture for two groups that have clashed over toilet turf: transgender activists, and the people who refuse to share a restroom with them.
Last month, the D.C. Trans Coalition launched its “Pee in Peace” campaign to raise awareness about the three-year-old restroom requirements in local accommodations. For the DCTC, “Peeing in Peace” means navigating the bathroom line “without having to worry whether someone is going to assault or arrest us for using the ‘wrong’ one.”
Campaign member Sadie Baker says that Policy isn’t alone in its gender-specific display. The campaign is compiling a list of locations that are currently non-compliant with the single-stall requirement but could easily follow the law by changing a few signs; OHR plans to contact each to ensure they get in line. DCTC found a number of repeat offenders in national chain toilets—your Starbucks, your Chipotles, your Caribou Coffees. Independent discriminators include local fixtures like Asylum, Marvin, the Wonderland Ballroom, and Café Asia. “The problem, I believe, is that no one knows about it,” says Baker. “Our campaign is first focused on nicely reminding people of the law. Then, if they refuse to comply within
30 60 days, we’ll look into filing a discrimination complaint,” she says.
Last year, the Maryland Citizens for Responsible Government launched its own awareness campaign over transgender bathroom use: the “Not My Shower” initiative. Ruth Jacobs, the group’s president, says the campaign is meant to publicize the flip-side of transgender rights—privacy infringement for “normal people.” “If somebody with an opposite body part is allowed in to a ladies’ restroom—a guy who has a penis, who could put his penis inside my vagina—what am I to do?” says Jacobs. “We need to be able to retain the right to speak up about men in our bathrooms without being labeled bigots.” Jacobs does, however, approve of the gender-neutral single-stall. “That sounds like a reasonable compromise that doesn’t cause any problems for anybody, and that’s a fine thing to do,” she says.
Most restroom users aren’t as concerned with the genitalia of their stall-mates, but many are still skittish about going unisex. Forget accepting a transgender person—local diners are rarely tolerant of a non-gender-specific room.
One online reviewer found Muse Lounge’s unisex stall “creepy”: “The club itself is grimey, small and the oh-so-creepy unisex bathrooms. Yuck. I think every time I went to the restroom there was a couple in there fighting,” they wrote. Another blamed Sticky Rice’s unisex setup for a lack of cleanliness: “This place evidence #452982 why unisex bathrooms do not work,” the reviewer wrote. “There are 2 here to share. They were both a mess. Paper towels on the dirty, fluid ridden floor, along with what I can only assume came out of someone’s nose in one of the sinks.” And the unisex single-stall at U Street NW gay bar Nellie’s squeezed some homophobia out of one female bathroom-goer: “there is no girls bathroom vs boys bathroom. Everyone shares,” she wrote. “Which kind of sucks waiting in line with a bunch of divas.”
And though Café Asia subtly marks its line of men’s and women’s single stalls with gendered figures, one reviewer was so put off by the proximity of the sexes that he experienced performance anxiety: “I was stuck, lost and very confused when I went to the bathroom and this lady followed me back there and when into the stall next to me.…to the point where I couldn’t even use the bathroom. So upon leaving this very disturbing bathroom experience, I[t] was explained by my waiter that it was a unisex bathroom. WOW.”
At divier destinations with single stalls, a unisex switch won’t do much to lower the esteem of an already low-grade rest stop. Swankier locales, however, have more invested in their delineation between his-and-hers. At Busboys and Poets, a couple of whimsical tiled mosaics mark off the bathrooms. At the 9:30 Club, a toy mermaid and merman stand guard outside their respective johns. As trivial as it seems, a well-executed gendered bathroom sign can still carry cultural cachet—why else spend $3,000 on a giant exclamation mark?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.