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Nobody’s business 

The push to make all single-stall public restrooms in Illinois gender-neutral

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click to enlarge JP Carrascal
  • JP Carrascal

Every time Angelina Nordstrom wanted to use the restroom, it took ten minutes to get there and ten minutes to get back. Nordstrom, who is transgender, says that a former employer forced her to use the bathroom in a separate building after coworkers complained about her using the women's facility.

"That was a lot of time out of a workday," Nordstorm tells the Reader, estimating that her boss's discriminatory order cost her up to an hour's worth of productivity every day.

For the past four years, Nordstrom has lobbied with Chicago Restroom Access Project (CRAP) and the Pride Action Tank of Chicago to pass legislation that would ensure other trans and gender-nonbinary Illinoisans don't have to experience the same mistreatment. If signed into law, Senate Bill 556 would mandate that "every single-occupancy restroom in a place of public accommodation or public building be identified as all-gender."

On May 21, the Illinois house voted 109 to 55 in favor of the legislation.

Democratic state senator Melinda Bush of Grayslake and state rep Sam Yingling, Democrat of Round Lake Beach, were joined by 15 other Democratic lawmakers in sponsoring SB 556. In a statement, Yingling claims the legislation's passage "will ensure that every resident in Illinois, regardless of gender identity, is able to use a single-occupancy restroom without fear of discrimination."

"I appreciate the overwhelming bipartisan support as this legislation will not only benefit trans Illinoisans, but parents with opposite sex children," he says in an e-mail to the Reader, "such as a dad spending a day out with his little girl, and people with disabilities out and about with their caregiver."

Supporters say compliance with the bill wouldn't be burdensome for businesses: all restaurants and stores would have to do is replace the "male" and "female" signs on their single-stall restrooms with ones stating the facilities are open to everyone.

Myles Brady Davis, communications director and press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Illinois, says gender-neutral facilities are already the norm on airplanes, Amtrak commuter trains, and in Starbucks cafes. In consulting with local businesses about the proposal, Equality Illinois found that 51 percent said all-gender restrooms "would have a positive impact on their business," while 39 percent had no opinion.

"People just know that this is the right thing to do," Brady Davis tells the Reader. "This is going to be a very life-changing bill that's going to benefit so many."

In addition to wide support from the business community, the legislation has met with little opposition, according to Illinois house speaker Greg Harris. While he says that a 2017 bill making it easier for transgender people to update their birth certificates was met with "really hateful" rhetoric in the state legislature, not a single senator voted against SB 556 when the proposal was debated in April.

The conservative Illinois Family Institute, for instance, has referred to birth certificates that accurately reflect a transgender person's gender identity as "falsified" documents.

"Gender-pretenders can now acquire birth certificates that falsely identify them as the sex they are not and that falsely state that this identification happened at birth, which it did not," the lobby group claimed on its website after the birth certificate bill was signed into law by former governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican.

"The chest pounding and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from opponents, you just don't see anymore," Harris tells the Reader. "People are getting to understand that a bill like this is just a common-sense thing."

After passing the house and senate, SB 556 is headed to Democratic governor J.B. Pritzker's desk in the next 30 days. He will then have 60 days to sign the legislation into law. The first-term Democrat, whose 2018 campaign website referred to him as "a staunch advocate for LGBTQ rights," is expected to approve the bill.

SB 556 is similar to regulations already on the books in California, Vermont, and New Mexico, where they have met with little outcry. New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham, a Democrat, OKed a gender-neutral bathroom law in April after the legislation, HB 388, passed its house of representatives with an overwhelming 54-12 majority in February. It goes into effect July 1.

Although the legislation amounts to a "simple sign change," as Brady Davis calls it, advocates say the passage of SB 556 would be extremely meaningful for the estimated 49,750 trans and nonbinary people who call Illinois home.

While Brady Davis, who identifies as nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, has not experienced discrimination on the basis of their gender identity since transitioning, they plan to have a baby with their wife in the future. Brady Davis intends on carrying the child. Without a law like SB 556 on the books, being visibly pregnant could open them up to harassment or even violence in restroom facilities.

"I have my father's face, but at the time when I'm pregnant, I would have my mother's body," they say. "Gender-neutral bathrooms would be the bathrooms that I would feel safest in."

According to research from the Williams Institute, a pro-LGBTQ think tank at UCLA, seven in ten transgender people have been discriminated against while attempting to use the bathroom. Eighteen percent of respondents claimed they have been refused access to a restroom because of their gender identity, while 9 percent said they have been assaulted or beaten as a result.

But one of the reasons SB 556 has enjoyed such wide support is that it impacts more than just members of the trans community, according to Brady Davis. They point out the legislation also affects "parents with kids of the opposite sex, caretakers of people of the opposite sex, and people with disabilities."

The bill "helps a broad range of people," Brady Davis says. "I'm going to be really happy the day that it's signed."

SB 556 isn't the only pro-LGBTQ bill awaiting consideration by the governor. Earlier this year, the Illinois house and senate voted in favor of legislation mandating that public schools educate students about "the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this state." Similar laws have been enacted in California and New Jersey.

Another bill awaiting the governor's signature, SB 1319, seeks to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ seniors and people living with HIV in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other state-funded housing. It would classify these populations as "groups of greatest social need."

Pritzker is expected to weigh in on the legislation, including SB 556, before the end of June, which marks LGBTQ Pride month.   v

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