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Commission Pushing Gender-Neutral Bathrooms in Square Businesses

The gender neutral bathroom at Charlie's Kitchen.
The gender neutral bathroom at Charlie's Kitchen. By Matthew W DeShaw
By Alison W. Steinbach, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: November 3, 2017 at 3:06 p.m.

The Cambridge Human Rights Commission is working to ensure local businesses are aware of and comply with a state law on gender discrimination—particularly when it comes to gender-neutral restrooms.

Last year, Massachusetts updated its laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of public accommodation, which include restaurants, theaters, stores, and hotels. According to an explanatory guide that accompanied the updates, Massachusetts “protects the right of all people—including transgender people—to use sex-segregated facilities that are most consistent with their sincerely held gender identity,” including bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms.

Nancy B. Schlacter, executive director of the Human Rights Commission—a Cambridge body appointed by the City Manager—said that not all Cambridge businesses are aware of the new law or how it could affect them. To address this, the Commission plans to hold optional trainings for local businesses in February or March to increase awareness of the law, what it stipulates, and how businesses can best comply with it.

“We’re not making law here in Cambridge, we’re just trying to raise awareness about an existing state law,” Schlacter said. “It’s not like we’re calling for them to them to tear up their bathrooms and change them. It’s letting them know what the law is, particularly training the staff to understand the law that a person can use their bathroom of choice based on their gender identity.”

Charlie’s Kitchen, a Harvard Square restaurant and bar, is one of a few local businesses that has explicitly designated gender-neutral bathrooms—its restrooms are three separate stalls with gender-neutral signage. Luke O’Neill-Waddie, a manager at Charlie’s Kitchen, said the bathrooms have been like this for at least five to ten years.

“It’s been quite a normal thing here, especially for the regulars,”said O’Neill-Waddie, although he added that sometimes tourists are “thrown off” by the concept. “Every now and then a person will come up and be like ‘I’m glad you guys are being progressive with the bathrooms’ and we’re like ‘Oh thanks, we’ve been doing it for a while,” he said.

Because not many businesses currently have explicitly gender-neutral bathrooms, Schlacter said it is especially important to help Cambridge store owners understand how to comply with the law.

“Everyone shares the right to use the bathroom that comports with their gender identity,” Schlacter said.

Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association, said she couldn’t think of any local businesses with gender-neutral bathrooms, but said that Harvard Square businesses are “incredibly welcoming to all people.”

“It’s not an issue here that I know of,” Jillson said. “We’ve never had a complaint come through on an email, a phone call, or in person where somebody felt they had been treated inappropriately. It just doesn’t happen.”

City Councilor Jan Devereux said she supports the Human Rights Commission’s efforts to educate businesses about this, but said she does not expect City Council to be involved unless there is a zoning change that needs to be made. Devereux added that her reelection campaign office at WeWork on Mass. Ave. has a gender-neutral, multi-stall bathroom—the first one she has encountered.

Harvard College has also recently worked to add gender-neutral bathrooms, and all 12 Houses will include gender-neutral bathrooms after House renewal is complete.

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City PoliticsHarvard SquareCambridge City CouncilCambridgeGender and Sexuality