WASHINGTON - There is a battle over public restrooms in D.C. A decade-old law requires all single occupancy restrooms in city businesses to be gender-neutral.
The city claims the law is about protecting the safety of the transgender community, but a local business just fined for violating the law is questioning how the city is enforcing the rule.
Madam's Organ in the Adams Morgan area of Northwest D.C. serves up food, drinks and music on a nightly basis. But according to papers just sent to its owner, they are discriminating against people too.
"I'm thinking, 'What did we do?' owner Bill Duggan said. "And finally it downloads and I found out that our big crime is that we label our men and ladies rooms."
D.C.'s Office of Human Rights said these are not signs of the times when it comes to labeling single stalls. Since 2006, the city has had a regulation in place requiring all single occupancy bathrooms in businesses to have only gender-neutral signs reading "Restroom."
"We had many reports from the transgender community that they were harassed, intimidated and subjected to violence because they might have been seen waiting outside of the bathroom that said male or female and someone may have thought that they shouldn't be using that bathroom," said Office of Human Rights director Monica Palacio.
The District of Columbia was one of the first cities to pass a regulation like this.
"It's better for the transgender community, but it also works very well for people with disabilities who have caregivers and need to use the same bathroom and help someone use the bathroom," said Palacio.
She said it also helps "parents who are with a child of a different gender and want to help the child go to the bathroom. Many people have told us this makes a lot of sense. It's just very practical."
But Duggan said it is not practical at his establishment nor is it an easy fix.
"Two of those bathrooms have urinals only," he said. "They are labeled men's room. I guess we are going to see some interesting gymnastics to use them."
The bar owner said he respects the transgender community and will do what needs to be done to respect their needs. But he takes issue with the way D.C. informed him of this violation.
"D.C. government just seems a bit heavy handed," said Duggan.
He also questions why this has never been mentioned during city inspections of his business.
The city has launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #safebathroomsdc that asks residents to tweet photos of offending businesses.
"We passed health inspections here for the last 25 years," said Duggan. "So they obviously know what is going on. It just seems absurd when you go to their website now that I have looked at it asking people to turn businesses in. It is not the way you do outreach."
Palacio said the Twitter campaign has been very successful and has yielded 280 reports of violators. But she said she knows there are many more they have not gotten to yet.
D.C. has heard from other cities looking to set up similar rules. Seattle has reached out for advice and will enact its own regulation there this coming week.