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All-gender washrooms can be a complicated issue for restaurateurs, bar owners

One of the All Gender restrooms at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, photographed on March 3 2016. "Across North America, schools are adding gender-neutral washrooms, states are passing new regulations on restroom choice, the man-woman signs on bathroom doors are coming down". (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For transgender people, accessing a public restroom can be a stressful experience. In November, a staff member at a Montreal restaurant tried to bar a transgender woman from using the ladies room. Earlier in the year, another transgender woman faced the same treatment at a Medicine Hat bar – staff even posted a sign that warned patrons: "You must use the bathroom of your birth gender."

Both events kicked off an angry backlash online, and in one case led to picketing of the restaurant by several transgender activists, and yet they're common experiences for people in the trans community.

While no Canadian studies have been done on the subject, one 2015 U.S. survey conducted by Los Angeles-based The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that 59 per cent of transgender individuals avoided public washrooms because that was the place they were most likely to be assaulted or verbally abused. And in the year previous to the study, more than one in 10 said they had experienced harassment, assault or sexual assault in restroom, and nearly one in 10 had been denied access to a washroom.

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It's a controversial issue, particularly in the U.S., where court battles are being fought over the legalities of allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice in North Carolina and Texas. In 2016, at least 15 states have considered "bathroom bills" similar to the legislation recently enacted in North Carolina, which blocks transgender people from using bathrooms that don't correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

"I've been fairly lucky – I haven't had a lot of problems myself," says Martine Stonehouse, a transgender activist from Toronto. "But I know of others who have faced harassment and violence. Public washrooms can be very daunting and yet people have to go."

All-gender washrooms have become increasingly common at Canadian university campuses, schools and private businesses. Last year, the CNE introduced individual, self-contained toilets, for example, with a simple stick figure wearing a half-skirt, half pant and a caption that reads, "We don't care."

But for restaurants and bars facing conflicting regulations and potentially expensive renovations, the issue of ensuring public washrooms are a safe haven for everyone can prove tricky.

The easy solution, contends Rob Turpin, general manager of Vancouver pub Score on Davie, is to incorporate unisex or all-gender bathrooms that can be used by anybody. "It's something we've done for years," he says.

While there are separate entrances signed for the "men's" and "women's" washrooms at the pub, they both lead to the same place – a row of individual stalls that anyone can use, several urinals divided off by a wall and common sinks. "We've created a safe haven," says Mr. Turpin, who points out that no one designates men's and women's bathrooms at home.

However, regulations for restaurants can make it complicated for owners to make changes. "Restaurants are trying to accommodate a changing society, but sometimes other obstacles stand in their way," says James Rilett, Ontario vice-president of Restaurants Canada.

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Mr. Rilett points out that building codes, as well as municipal and provincial regulations sometime contain confusing clauses that appear to specifically spell out the need for gender-specific washrooms.

Section 332 of the Ontario Building Code allows for the use of a single washroom for both sexes in small assembly buildings (such as restaurants), so long as the "occupant load" does not exceed 10.

But, Conrad Spezowka, a spokesman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (which is responsible for administering the building code), points out that another section of the building code specifies buildings that are small, but accommodate more than 10 occupants, can opt to have two washrooms, each of which can be used by either men or women. "Signage designating gender usage is not addressed by the building code," he says.

Mr. Rilett also points to Ontario Regulation 562, Food Premises, as problematic. It states "every food premise shall provide at least one sanitary facility for each sex in accordance with this section …."

But such regulations aren't written in stone, he adds. "Some restaurants have worked with the inspectors to allow the restaurants to move forward [with all-gender washrooms] and I haven't heard any major issues to this point," he says. Mr. Spezowka advises restaurant owners to raise questions regarding specific clauses with public health unit inspectors.

And he points out, "the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care is currently undertaking a comprehensive review of environmental health regulations under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, including Reg. 562. This review involves harmonizing requirements across other regulations, including the Ontario Building Code."

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In the meantime, most provinces already have businesses that have adopted universal or gender-neutral washrooms that can be used by anyone. "Basically, the inspectors have worked out agreements to not stand in the way," says Restaurant Canada's Mr. Rilett. "So the regulations are not stopping anyone right now, but they are still on the books so some are uneasy planning new construction. Most operators don't want to go against any regulations."

Will Sturm, owner of Brass Taps Bar and Grill on the Danforth in Toronto, doesn't have strong feelings about the issue. "As far as I'm concerned it's live and let live," he says. "Everyone is welcome."

Brass Taps has two downstairs washrooms, he says, one for men (with urinals and stalls) and one for women (with stalls), as well as a self-contained washroom with sink that anybody – including people with mobility issues – can use on the main floor.

"I guess I would be inclined to say, 'Maybe you want to use the main-floor bathroom,'" says Mr. Sturm. "If it makes people uncomfortable, you have to address it. I would hope they [the transgender person] would be willing to accommodate other people who might find it a bit shocking."

Still, not every restaurant has a third bathroom, and for most bar and restaurant owners, doing extensive bathroom renovations to meet the requirements of a few patrons isn't in the budget. "Ultimately, the transgender community is fairly small," says Mr. Sturm. "What's popular is not always practical for a business owner."

Transgender activist Ms. Stonehouse believes it will take time for multistall all-gender washrooms to be as acceptable in North America as they are in Europe, but says, "we need to start with options that accommodate everyone."

She hopes it won't require regulations to force the change. "I would like to encourage all businesses to take the initiative and look at their employees and customers and be leaders in making the world a better place for all of us to live in," she says. "As we educate the public more on transgender people and the rainbow of difference and fluidity of gender and identity, we'll feel more comfortable with our own personal identities, and we will begin to see everyone as persons."

But Restaurant Canada's Mr. Rilett understands Mr. Sturm's concerns about the cost of renovations. "Just as in your home, the bathroom is the second most expensive thing to change other than the kitchen," he says. "On thin margins, some restaurant owners just don't have the ability to change them."

Restaurant owners who rent their own buildings may also face push-back from building owners over making renovations. "There's no one way to handle the issue," says Mr. Rilett. "Some places get innovative. Maybe they have two separate washrooms and they just put a new sign up that says either sex can use it."

Ultimately, he contends, "the best thing people can do is educate their staff so that even if the facilities aren't perfect they can address their customers' needs in a way that doesn't make anybody feel uncomfortable."

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