The next battleground for LGBT rights may be the public restroom.
The White House recently opened its first gender-neutral bathroom, it announced Wednesday, a symbolic step by the Obama administration to raise awareness of issues within the LGBT community.
Located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing, the "all-gender restroom" is one of numerous gestures President Obama has taken in the last year or so to raise the profile of gay and lesbian rights – and it may signal a trend toward more gender-neutral restrooms in facilities across the country.
“The president is determined to lead by example,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote in an op-ed in the Advocate, a magazine focused on LGBT issues. “He has hired more openly LGBT Americans to serve in his administration than any other in history. And we have closely examined our internal policies on everything from benefits, to restroom access, to how we invite people to events, to ensure that everyone who enters this building feels safe and fully respected.”
Among the steps the Obama administration has taken to bolster gay and lesbian rights is an executive order banning discrimination against gay and transgender employees of the federal government and of companies that contract with the federal government. That executive order went into effect on Wednesday.
As Politico pointed out, the President also famously endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, used the word "transgender" in this year's State of the Union address, included sex-reassignment surgery in Medicare coverage, and "saluted the struggles of gay Americans in his speech last month in Selma, Ala., marking the 50th anniversary of one of the most important marches of the civil rights movement..."
And in announcing the presence of gender-neutral bathrooms in the White House, the Obama administration appears to be starting a national conversation about transgender Americans' access to restrooms.
Advocates say being forced to use a gender-specific bathroom can cause fear and anxiety for transgender people. Some have reported being harassed for using the "wrong" bathroom at public places like hotels, airports, businesses, and schools. As such, LGBT supporters have championed gender-neutral facilities for years.
"I don't think there is a strong trend in making such options 'mandatory' but it is increasingly, in my observation, recognized as a "best practice" to promote inclusion for lots of people who may benefit – like families, people with opposite-sex caretakers," says Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. and Director of Center for Gender & Sexuality Studies.
"A growing number of college campuses and businesses have established gender-inclusive facilities," adds Suzanne Ashworth, an associate professor of English at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, who teaches Gender & Sexuality studies and who fought for gender neutral restrooms at Otterbein.
In fact, Washington, DC, has had a law requiring new or renovated city-owned buildings to include gender-neutral restrooms on the books since 2006, though it may not be enforced often. Austin, Texas, enacted a similar law last year, and the Philadelphia City Council passed such a law in 2013.
And according to an LA Times report, West Hollywood is the first city in California to adopt gender-neutral restrooms. The University of California also announced last year that its campuses would begin converting single-stall restrooms into gender-neutral facilities, and state public schools began allowing students to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify, rather than their birth gender, according to the report.
But there's a counter movement at the state level against the proliferation of gender-neutral bathrooms.
The White House's announcement of its first all-gender restroom comes as a handful of state legislatures are considering laws that would restrict which public restrooms transgender people can use. Lawmakers in Nevada, Minnesota, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Kentucky have all put forth measures requiring schoolchildren to use bathrooms that match their gender at birth.
In Florida, for example, the “Single Sex Public Facilities” bill in the state House would prohibit “knowingly & willfully entering single-sex public facility designated for or restricted to persons of other biological sex," reports Politico. Proponents say the bills are a means to protect against sexual predators.
Transgender advocates have responded to the measures on social media with the #WeJustNeedToPee campaign, in which transgender people across the country share selfies on social media taken in single-sex bathrooms.
For them, the White House's gender-neutral bathroom marks a significant victory.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Politico, “It is heartening to see that, even if legislators in some states are attacking the dignity and humanity of transgender and gender non-conforming people, at least the White House is still moving in the direction of dignity and common sense."