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The law nobody knows: Public bathrooms are gender-neutral in Chicago
by Maggie Reagan, Kelly Rutherford
2022-03-13

This article shared 1971 times since Sun Mar 13, 2022
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August Hieber sometimes feels like a professional trans person.

The manager of programs and advocacy at the Chicago Bar Foundation, Hieber

(they/them) has the uncommon experience of being a transgender and non-binary attorney. For them, the fight for justice—and who has access to it—is both a personal and professional goal.

Recently, at a neighborhood bar, Hieber was redirected by staff. When they went to use the restroom, Hieber said, "They were gendered, single-stalled bathrooms, and whenever I would

walk to the women's room, they'd be like, 'No, the men's is around the corner.' And every time I would go to the men's room, they would be like, 'The women's is around the corner.' So I was in a no-win situation."

On Jan. 1, 2020, a law that designated all single-occupancy restrooms in public buildings and businesses as gender-neutral took effect in Illinois. "I go to places around Andersonville and Edgewater, my community, where single-cell bathrooms are still gendered," Hieber said. "And I know what the law is, and I know that people still aren't doing it."

Hieber took matters into their own hands, printing postcards that pointed out business owners who were not in compliance with this law and simply leaving them in the bathrooms.

But Hieber isn't the first to have that idea. This year, they became involved with the

Community Restroom Access Project (formerly the Chicago Restroom Access Project, also known as CRAP), a grassroots organization with a long history with this legislation. CRAP is one of several projects to come out of the AIDS Foundation Chicago think tank and project incubator Pride Action Tank. At its broadest point, Pride Action Tank is concerned with issues that impact the LGBTQ+ community; in its projects and goals, it goes micro, utilizing the expertise of members of LGBTQ+ subcommunities as well as experts in various legal, social and political fields.

In the seven years that CRAP has been mobilizing in an increasingly complex legal battle, it has achieved some significant victories. Mike Ziri (he/him)—the director of public policy at Equality Illinois, the state's LGBTQ+-rights organization—first got involved with CRAP in 2016. He explained the details of the single-occupancy restroom law, which he refers to as the "planes-and-trains bill."

"That was a messaging tool to help convey to legislators that, hey, you've already used

gender-neutral single-occupancy restrooms on planes and trains," Ziri said. "And you may not have realized it. And the sky didn't fall. And we found that the legislation was generally receptive to the bill, and it passed very strongly."

But the actual passage of the bill was just the beginning of CRAP's work; as Hieber

noticed in their own neighborhood, the true crux of the problem seems to be that even when they do win battles, people just don't know about it.

Ziri stressed the organization's focus on advocacy education.

"When you have a law, implementation can always be a challenge," he said. "We've heard inquiries [like] 'Why hasn't this establishment changed their signage yet?' 'who do I raise a complaint to?' Sometimes it's just a matter of letting the manager know."

Hieber agreed, saying, "There is not enough public education around the issue. Yes, we did it, but we need to get people to buy into it, and to comply through inviting them because

enforcement just is not a possibility right now."

CRAP's approach to activism is a larger-scale version of Hieber's personal instincts:

friendly, informative, non-confrontational education. Like Hieber, the organization has a postcard for business owners: a downloadable item on its website that succinctly explains the single-occupancy restroom law, who it applies to, how it helps communities and the simple, low-cost steps businesses need to take to comply. A more detailed downloadable poster provides background information on the benefits of the law and offers talking points for community members who want to support it.

But change is still slow, and CRAP's work was hugely derailed by the pandemic. The

single-occupancy bathroom law took effect in January 2020, two months before a citywide shutdown was mandated because of COVID-19. At the time, CRAP was readying a public education campaign that was all but put on hold.

"We're looking to get back into it," Ziri said. "The presence of Zoom has helped get the message out to different partners, particularly within LGBTQ community groups across the state to help them have the tools, because they know the law exists, these community organizers, but they want to know how to talk to people. How do you tell a business owner, 'Hey: Your sign should be updated?'"

Hieber has two theories about the slow response to compliance with the new ordinance.

The first is flagrant violation: "Business owners who know the law, and then don't agree with it. There's no enumerated enforcement mechanism besides the fact that a public health official can inspect for it, but there's no consequence essentially, if they do inspect for it."

Inspection enforcement relies on the Chicago Public Health Department—another system that has been overloaded by COVID-19. This leaves little space on the agenda for enforcing new city ordinances while battling the barrage of COVID-19 related concerns. Without enforcement, there is little motivation for businesses to enact new policies. "So, there's no enforcement," Heiber concluded. "For business owners that know about it and don't want to do anything, there's no consequence."

But there are some businesses who would enact this policy if they only knew it exists. Hieber's second theory is lack of awareness. Without help from City Hall, the ordinance's onus now circles back to the grassroots organizers of CRAP who must rally once again to integrate their cause into the businesses of Chicago to implement the changes they worked tirelessly to pass.

In many cases, that small amount of awareness is truly all it takes.

"Businesses have just been trying to keep the doors open," Ziri said of the pandemic. "It's been tough, and I understand that. But I also understand that this is an issue of signage. We're not saying [to] remodel the restroom … As society hopefully reemerges, we need to make sure that the spaces that are out there for the public are all affirming and welcome. And changing the signage in your restroom is an important way to do that. And it's the law!"

Raising this awareness throughout the city means creating more opportunities statewide. Ziri said that, last fall, the city passed an ordinance amending its plumbing codes in compliance with the single-occupancy restroom law, creating clearer guidelines for builders, developers and business owners in the future. It also opens the door for eventual passage of a gender-neutral multi-occupancy restroom bill.

However, Hieber said that slow change is better than no change. "CRAP is just a small group of people, trying to get the word out all across the state. It's working very slowly, it's very

incremental—which is fantastic because it's building this firm foundation."

When change is measured in increments, any win, no matter how small, feels significant. Hieber keeps one victory close: the neighborhood bar where they initially left postcards in for non-compliance.

"When I went yesterday, the signs had been ripped off of the doors," they said. "So, they actually converted them by changing the signage to no signage, [which created] all-gender

bathrooms. The postcards worked! I'm so pumped about it. It made me so happy."

The Chicago Department of Public Health could not be reached for comment.

Born and raised in Ohio, Kelly Rutherford (she/her) is pursuing her M.A. in communications at DePaul and has previously been published in Wilderness House Literary Magazine. Maggie Reagan (she/her) is a Chicago native and DePaul journalism M.A. student working as an editor at Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association.


This article shared 1971 times since Sun Mar 13, 2022
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