The Sexist

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.

  • Q™

    Amanda, please help me understand this one. Are you saying that all the cutesy gender specific restroom names are in violation...just because of potential of harassment?

    I've seen guys/gals, senors/senoritas, dudes/chicks, etc. What I HAVEN'T seen is women-trandgendered/ males/men-transgendered females. I wonder what a transgendered icon would look like?

    Anyways, while I think I understand the portion of the Human Rights Act you cited, I'm still in the dark about how ambiguous or non-ambiguous rest room names have anything to do with bigotry, sexism, and the other things that cultivate harrassment. Should homosexuals cry harrassment or violation of the DC Human Rights act that restrooms are mostly heterosexual?

    Women and men make their own comments within the restroom, so it ain't about the name on the door. It's about the character of the person inside the door.

    If anything, the risk of folks wandering in a drunken stupor to the "genetically incorrect" rest room might be more more harassing or offensive than anything else.

  • Amanda Hess

    What the fuck is a heterosexual restroom?

  • Q™

    Exactly my point!

  • Q™

    sorry answer got cut off. So to alleviate any confusion, the only sign that is necessary is OCCUPIED.

  • DCBob

    This article is rather poor in explaining the law. It applies only to single-occupancy restrooms, which must have gender-neutral signs. Multiple occupancy restrooms may have gender-specific signs.

    The exceptionally rare unisex restrooms just confuse the issue and have nothing to do with the Human Rights Act.

    The crazy quote from Ruth Jacobs makes her look insane, but it clouds the issue. She isn't even involved with the D.C. law. There was no mention that there was absolutely no opposition to D.C.'s law and it passed the Council unanimously.

    Q's odd comment aside, this has nothing to do with homosexuals.

    Try reorganizing this article so it makes more sense.

  • Q™

    Thanks DCBob. Sarcasm doesn't quite translate. I know that restrooms themselves don't have a gender designation, but as far as harassment goes, if transgendered could get harassed, so could homosexuals for similar reasons.

  • DCBob

    @Q, Not really.

    Harassment and assualt of transgender people is fairly common for use of the "wrong" restroom. It is so rare for GLB people that all but unheard of.

  • Sally

    Lots of locally-owned restaurants are struggling to survive and now they have to face the prospect of lawsuits and citations due to a regulation that no one is aware of and that is befuddling? The ways this city does everything it can to drive businesses away is simply astounding.

  • Even if that were true

    Some things are more important than business, you silly ape.

  • Sadie Baker

    This is Sadie Baker. I'm an organizer with the DC Trans Coalition. To echo what Bob said, this article is somewhat misleading and inflammatory. To clarify, our campaign is NOT calling for unisex bathrooms. The provisions for gender neutral signage accompanying the Human Rights Act only apply to *existing* single occupancy (one person at a time) facilities. We are not asking anyone to build new bathrooms, and we aren't asking anyone to get rid of their male/female bathrooms. In fact, many of the places listed in this article are irrelevant because they are multi-occupancy bathrooms and thus exempt from those provisions. To the reporter who interviewed me: please get your facts correct.

    @Sally: This isn't about threatening anyone. We are trying to educate people about the law, and about issues that trans and gender nonconforming people face using public facilities. That's all. It costs nothing to make sure existing single stall bathrooms have a sign reading "restroom" instead of "women." The only time we would ever even consider the possibility of bringing a formal complaint (which in and of themselves rarely end in punitive damages) is if a business, after ample time (and actually they have 60, not 30, days) repeatedly and intentionally refuses to comply.

    In fact, we are encouraging members of our community and allies to attend compliant businesses, and once we feel more safe being able to use public bathrooms, it actually means *more* business! That said, I also agree with the following comment: People's safety and right to be free from violence supersedes any businesses' needs. 70% of trans and gender nonconforming people responded in a survey that they had faced serious problems using public restrooms. That matters to me more than business.

    To respond to Ruth Jacobs... as a woman and a repeat survivor of assault, I too am very concerned about assault in public bathrooms. But she is clearly missing several key points. One, trans people are already using the bathroom. Like everyone else, we have to pee. And we are not more likely to be sexual predators than cisgender (non-trans) people. There are no documented cases of a trans person assaulting anyone in restrooms. Two, many trans people are indistinguishable from cis people. The flipside to her argument is that trans men - who often look, act, and live their lives as any other men - would be forced to use women's restrooms. Three, it's not like cisgender women are incapable of sexual assault, or are any less likely to assault than trans women are. Believe me. There's no simple or easy way to keep predators out of bathrooms, but discriminating against trans women won't help. Four, it's already illegal to sexually assault someone, and this does nothing to change that. Five, having a "woman" sign as opposed to a gender neutral sign on an existing single stall bathroom does NOT in anyway make it more difficult for sexual predators to enter said restroom. Clearly, signs aren't stopping sexual assault right now.

    The fact is, trans and gender nonconforming people are far more at risk of sexual assault than we are a threat. Our campaign is about two things: Making sure everyone is aware that we have a right to safely use existing gender segregated public multi-stall facilities consistent with our gender, and making sure that existing single stall facilities are labeled gender neutral so that we have more options to feel safe. That's it.


    The world is fucked up and it should be destroyed. Drag Queens, Transexuals are freaks period.

  • Lindsay

    Sadie, thanks for clarifying the issue this article is kind of missing. It sounds actually really simple and kind of obvious. I can't imagine it posing a genuine threat to anyone's person or business.

  • Jamie

    I don't understand this consternation around unisex bathrooms. They exist in all commercial airplanes. A person goes in, locks the door, uses the facility, then the person leaves. Why would anyone have a problem with that? What part of that arrangement makes them creepy?

  • http://thesexist ROBERTA

    i have a confession to make. i grew up in a home that had a gender neutral and i turned out normal.

  • DCBob

    One point that has not been made is that the major beneficiaries of gender-neutral signs on single occupancy restrooms is cis-gendered women.

    It should come as no surprise that women take about 50% longer in restrooms than men. If there are only two resrooms with gender specific signs, men will not be waiting in lines as long as women.

    If everyone is waiting in the same line for the same single occupancy restrooms, then women and men will have equal waits.

  • Sadie Baker

    lol, Roberta!

    In general, I felt the tone of this article was overly sensationalized. It seems like it's trying to "stir something up." We had had no resistance to our campaign from government, business or anyone else. The "Not in My Shower" people are in Maryland, and thus are irrelevant.

    I'm not sure anyone ever even complained about this Policy place. Our list is based on people bringing us complaints - if people don't feel like a bathroom is out of compliance, and don't write to us to report it, then it's not really a big deal and it's irrelevant. I'm not sure why the reporter picked that particular place to focus on. The whole end part about people being "creeped out" by unisex bathrooms is also irrelevant, as we're not calling for unisex bathrooms. It seems like the paper was just looking for controversy, and is confusing about what we're actually trying to do.

    I guess I am just really tired of reading stories about trans people, written by non-trans people for a largely non-trans audience, that are sensationalized and turned into some kind of huge controversy.

    The only controversy here is that trans people are being attacked in bathrooms. We are working *with* local businesses and the OHR to do something about it - the article makes it seem like we're "going after" businesses, or that we're going to go out and sue people for having a blue and pink door on their bathroom. We aren't. We're trying to find workable solutions that keep everyone's needs in mind and give trans people the most possible options for safety. I'm afraid that the generally oppositional tone of the article will scare businesses that may otherwise be welcome to working with us, and thus make our work for safety and access even more difficult.

  • Q™

    Thanks Sadie for the COMPLETE clarification. The tone of the article pointed me in the wrong direction in terms of what was attempting to be achieved. Call me an out of touch hetero, but I honestly didn't know that the bathroom labels on single stall bathrooms were that big a deal until now.

    Most folks, when they have to "GO REALLY BADLY" wouldn't care if the door said "Sheep" or "Buffalo" as long as there was a workable toilet in it. Still, for appearance sake and to limit the threat of harassment, I'd just assumed see RESTROOM.

    Not to stir the pot a bit (bad pun), but what does your group think about FAMILY changing bathrooms, i.e., like the ones Target has?

  • Match

    Why am I the only one who didn't find this "sensationalistic"? Is it because it has to do with transgendered people?
    Sadie- you're particularly annoying. You say- "Our campaign is first focused on nicely reminding people of the law" and then, "I guess I am just really tired of reading stories about trans people, written by non-trans people for a largely non-trans audience, that are sensationalized and turned into some kind of huge controversy." Isn't this story helping out your cause? moron.
    Yea, I'm also sick of all the coverage of transgendered rights- god, can anyone write about something else?
    The only thing I see that's sensational is the moronic comments from Ruth Jacobs.
    Someone please point out the sensationalism (not Q, you're the cancer of the Washington City Paper website)

  • Q™

    @Match, and your comments are considered the cure for WCP's Cancer. If anything call me the Ocassional-Chemotherapy Treatment. Yes, it can be destructive and toxic at times, but it's sole purpose is to DESTROY the cells that are EATING away at the body. Hence why you only get my comments in regularly scheduled doses.

    I would say that this article was more misleading than sensational, hence why I opened my comment up with "Amanda, help me understand..."

    Statements like the following for example: "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."

    Sarcastic, well yes. But I left that statement thinking that even Restaurants with multi-stall bathrooms have to be compliant some how.

    In reading the article another time, I think the angle was centered more around the Sexist nature of bathroom goers to Unisex bathrooms. However, because the story started off with violations for those with single-stalls, it wasn't clear (at least to me) what the point was.

    Match, I'm neither offended or upset by your comments. Keep them coming.

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  • Skipper

    Given that the article is pretty clearly misleading and contains incorrect information, should Amanda or the City Paper correct it?

    @Sadie: Isn't your list of bathrooms also compiled by demanding a list of all licensed restaurants from the city so that your own "investigators" could check for compliance with the regulations?

  • Amanda Hess

    Hey Skipper, if you have any corrections for me on this story, you can e-mail me at

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  • Jay

    I think those bathroom signs look pretty cool actually and as a female my favorite color is blue! When I was at Policy I used the brilliantly blue lighted door when attending the restroom... I did'nt notice a female or a male line.
    Why are you picking on a new start up business and a spot that I happen to enjoy in my U st neighborhood? I honestly think this is a ridiculous article and a personal attack on Policy.

  • peeer

    ever use the can at cafe asia? its a suburb set-up.