Your support is key 🔑

70% of our budget comes from individual members, making our work possible without paywalls.

Will you join us?

Over the last few months the phrase “bathroom bill” has become commonplace, largely in reference to laws in states like North Carolina that force transgender individuals to use a restroom marked by the gender they were assigned at birth — not the gender they identify as.

Philadelphia has its own “bathroom bill.” It’s on the other end of the spectrum and requires public places with single-occupant bathrooms to drop the “men” and “women” labels and add some form of signage that indicates the bathroom is gender-neutral. But it’s been four months since that ordinance went into effect in January, and no establishments have been cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections for not complying.

“We’re quite confident there are plenty of establishments out there that are not complying,” L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss said. “And we’re trying to do public education and get the word out. Going with a more collaborative process will be effective.”

Guss said L&I, which was tasked with enforcing the law in conjunction with the Office of LGBT Affairs, hasn’t had to cite any establishments because it hasn’t gotten to that point. The Office of LGBT Affairs is largely handling the outreach portion of the law in terms of getting the word out to business owners and operators. Right now, if an establishment is not in compliance, the Office of LGBT Affairs will reach out with a letter or a phone call, and if that doesn’t bring them into compliance, the office will visit the business.

From there, if the business still does not come into compliance with the law, L&I will be notified and is willing to write that establishment a violation. Turns out, that hasn’t happened yet — and Guss said it’s because businesses have been generally receptive to the bill and have come into compliance once they learned of the new rule.

Philadelphia’s gender-neutral bathroom bill was enacted last year as one of the last pieces of legislation signed by former Mayor Michael Nutter. The bill was introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla to complement the city’s current laws that stipulate a transgender individual can use whichever bathroom the person feels comfortable in — this new bill formalizes that on the part of local businesses.

In 2013, Philadelphia also enacted a law that was part of then-Councilman (now Mayor) Jim Kenney’s LGBT legislation and it required all new city buildings built would have gender-neutral bathrooms included in the plans. (Problem is, not that many city buildings have been built since then.)

Once the new bill went into effect in January, language in the bill stipulates businesses were to come into compliance within 90 days or face a fine ranging anywhere from $75 to $2,000. If the comments of restaurant leaders are any indication, that shouldn’t be a widespread problem for those establishments.

“I don’t know the personal or religious preferences of certain business owners, so I didn’t know if it was going to be an issue,” Melissa Bova of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said last year. “But I have to be honest, they were all, like, ‘We’re in. Not a problem. Let’s go.’”

The passage of Philadelphia’s transgender-friendly bathroom bill came just months before a national conversation about the rules exploded. Several cities across the country have enacted laws requiring some form of gender-neutral bathrooms in public restroom spaces — Washington, D.C. was the first to put in place such a law in 2006. Monday, California lawmakers advanced a bill similar to Philadelphia’s that would be in place statewide.

Of course, there are those on the other side of the argument. The state of North Carolina is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit because of its bathroom bill that effectively requires transgender individuals use the bathroom marked by the gender they were assigned at birth. On Tuesday, attorney general Loretta Lynch equated the bill to Jim Crow laws and violates a section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits worker discrimination based on sex or gender identity.

“This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms,” Lynch said Tuesday. “This is about the dignity and the respect that we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we as a people and as a country have enacted to protect them.”

The debate also made it to the presidential race, and just before Texas Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the GOP primary battle, he launched a crusade in favor of bathroom bills like the one enacted in North Carolina and elsewhere, saying “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both agree that grown men should be allowed to use the little girls’ restroom.”

That’s not how transgender rights activists see it, and not how most of the businesses in Philadelphia who have been asked to comply with the rules see it, either. Guss said that cooperation from businesses and the partnership with the Office of LGBT Affairs is what’s keeping L&I from writing violations — for now.

“Let’s not go right to a sort of adversarial posture,” she said. “Let’s see if we can turn this into an opportunity for a positive interaction while at the same time not sort of giving in and saying ‘oh, OK you don’t have to do it.’”

If you come across a public restroom not in compliance with the new Philadelphia laws, notify Philly 311 via phone, online or on social media.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.