Cohen to introduce bill requiring all single-stall bathrooms to go gender-neutral

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A new bill set to be introduced early next week would require all single-stall bathrooms to be made gender-neutral, putting Baltimore in line with other major cities that have adopted similar changes.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, the bill’s sponsor, said his proposal is “about creating a more welcoming, inclusive city in our public accommodations, particularly for our trans community, our gender non-binary community—folks who would not feel welcome in either a male or female restroom.”

The 1st District councilman is planning to introduce the legislation at the council’s next full meeting on April 29, and hopes to schedule a hearing in the council’s Education and Youth Committee shortly thereafter.

Per preliminary bill text shared with Baltimore Fishbowl, the bill would require “gender-inclusive signage” for all publicly accessible single-stall bathrooms around the city, including in private businesses and public buildings. A violation of the ordinance would be punishable by either a misdemeanor with a $500 fine under city law, or a $100 fine under city health code related to signage.

“It would depend on the nature of the violation,” said Stefanie Mavronis, Cohen’s director of civic engagement, such as if a business were to resist changing its bathroom signage after being contacted by officials–but “we will work with the business community, not penalizing them,” she assured.

Buildings with multi-stall bathrooms following the men’s/women’s binary would be unaffected if the legislation were enacted, Mavronis said. Any single-stall restrooms added in new buildings would be required to fall in line with the gender-neutral rule.

Mavronis pointed out that the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, which took effect in October 2014, already bans gender-based discrimination in public accommodations, and therefore requires any single-stall restroom to be unisex.

“This just requires clear signage… that would be explicitly welcoming and inclusive and clear,” she said.

Cohen worked closely on the bill’s language with advocates, including Alaine Jolicoeur and Jabari Lyles of the mayor’s LGBTQ Commission and others. The legislation is modeled after changes implemented in cities like Philadelphia and Washington D.C. (Denver, Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, are also in that group, along with the entire states of Vermont and California).

“This has been tested,” said Jolicoeur, a local teacher who serves as co-chair of the LGBTQ Commission’s education and advocacy committee. “This has been done in other places, and other places that kind of mirror ourselves. This is the kind of community that I want to see as a resident here.”

In introducing the bill, Cohen is delivering on an assurance he made on March 25, when he and his council colleagues approved a resolution calling on City Schools to adopt a policy allowing trans students to use their preferred pronouns, access bathrooms aligning with their gender and update school records to reflect their gender. Cohen had said on the floor that he would introduce citywide legislation governing single-stall restrooms.

The city school board unanimously approved protections for trans students in a vote on April 10.

In preparing to roll out his broader citywide bill, Cohen said he’s spoken with business owners already about converting single-stall restrooms to gender-neutral, and “so far, they’ve been extremely supportive.”

“There’s a general sentiment that as a city, Baltimore can prosper more by becoming more inclusive, and that if more people felt welcomed and safe within both public and private accommodations, that we would just have more people here,” he said.

He alluded to last week’s U.S. Census update that Baltimore lost more than 7,300 residents during the last fiscal year ending July 1, 2018. “We’re losing population,” Cohen said, “and whether it is LGBT folks, immigrants, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, we want more people to come here, and we want them to feel included and safe.”

He and Jolicoeur both said they can foresee some potential opposition to the change.

“Until this legislation gets its fair hearing and gets its fair reporting, then we can expect that obstacle,” Jolicoeur said.

But they’re hoping it will be received well by council members, and that businesses and others will be adaptable.

“Who knows what’ll come up,” Cohen said. “But we think this is an important step toward becoming a more welcoming and inclusive city.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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