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City Council Advises Gender Neutral Bathrooms

By David H.A. LeBoeuf, Crimson Staff Writer

In response to concerns raised by the city’s GLBT Commission and members of the transgender community, the Cambridge City Council has passed a resolution requesting that the City Manager draft an ordinance on gender-neutral bathrooms.

Members of the GLBT Commission have had the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms on their radar for some time, but after hearing specific concerns about bathroom accessibility in the public library and anecdotes of residents facing harassment, commissioners concluded a city-wide ordinance was needed, according to Co-Chairs John W. Gintell and Sarav S. Chidambaram.

“Multitudes of people are facing these issues,” Chidambaram said.

He noted that gender neutral bathrooms seek to address overall accessibility. In addition to providing a space for those who do not fully identify as male or female, the single-stall restrooms also tend to be handicapped accessible.

The resolution says that the facilities will make it easier for those with caretakers of the opposite gender—such as a father accompanying a daughter—to access the restroom.

Because it is not yet officially an ordinance, it is unclear how Harvard might be affected. Marco Chan ’11, co-chair of the Harvard Queer Students and Allies, said the potential ordinance may shape discussions on gender neutral bathrooms with regards to House renewal.

“Harvard has definitely been keeping up with trying to cater to the needs of trans students on campus,” said Jia Hui Lee ’12, chair of the Harvard Trans Task Force.

“I see [the resolution] to be a very good step forward for the city .... It’s not about making all bathrooms gender neutral, it’s about providing an alternative to gendered bathrooms.”

The resolution passed the City Council with virtually unanimous approval.

City Councilor and former Mayor E. Denise Simmons—the country’s first African-American, openly lesbian mayor—rallied support for the measure from her colleagues.

“The City Council is very progressive and proactive,” said Simmons, who said the order will make the transgender community feel less isolated.

But the think tank Massachusetts Family Institute has expressed opposition to the order.

“MFI does oppose gender neutral bathrooms because we believe in the safety, and the privacy, and the modesty that should be available to all citizens,” said spokesperson Lisa J. Barstow. “And we believe gender-specific bathrooms do protect that.”

Though she said she was not familiar with the specifics of the Cambridge resolution, Barstow expressed concern that an ordinance might become an “unfunded mandate” requiring businesses to construct additional facilities—though she stated that the institute does not oppose gender-neutral bathrooms if the establishment constructs them voluntarily.

Timothy P. McCarthy ’83, director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, noted that other cities such as San Francisco have gender-neutral bathroom ordinances. He said opposition to such orders is initially over fear of blurring gender boundaries, but later people realize the utility of the facilities.

Simmons said that neither she nor the GLBT commission chairs had heard any opposition from the business community, adding that many institutions already have gender-neutral bathrooms or single-stalled restrooms in place.

“It doesn’t just serve the GLBT community, it serves families,” Simmons said.

—Staff writer David H. A. LeBoeuf can be reached at leboeuf@college.harvard.edu.

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