Why Aren't There More Gender-Neutral, Trans-Friendly Restaurant Restrooms In Chicago?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 25, 2017 4:20PM

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The new gender-neutral bathroom sign at Floriole Bakery. Photo via Instagram.

As states like North Carolina fight over whether or not to restrict transgender individuals access to bathrooms of their choice, some businesses in Chicago are considering whether to make their restroom facilities gender-neutral. Especially if a restaurant or bar has single-occupancy restrooms, this seems like a potential no-brainer, right? Makes everything more flexible, inclusive and safe. Except . . . it might be illegal.

I first encountered this issue after a dinner at The Publican. The restaurant has a very fashionable restroom setup with individual, single-occupancy restrooms surrounding a central handwashing station, but the individual restrooms are marked male and female. I asked a representative from the Publican why they felt the need to mark them that way, and after some time, I got back the following response: "The Publican communal but labeled bathrooms came from building codes/regs during the construction process."

Building codes? I was skeptical, what with many restaurants and bars already switching to gender-neutral facilities already, and Chicago's progressive LGBT stances. Was the Publican just trying to avoid paying to change signs? Surely the expensive flight of hams I ordered alone would cover the cost of the labeling change.

Once I started looking into this further, variations on this theme came up more than once. "When we did our dining room renovation 15 years ago or so, we made our two washrooms gender neutral," explained Cafe Selmarie owner Jeanne Uzdawinis. Unfortunately, after a visit, a liquor inspector informed her that this was against city code, and so their restrooms have been labeled male and female ever since.

Turns out, the inspectors are arguably correct. A portion of the city's liquor sales ordinance does require bathrooms to be gender-labeled:

4-60-100 Health, sanitation and inspection requirements. (a) Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, every person licensed or required to be licensed hereunder who shall sell any alcoholic liquor for consumption on the premises of such licensee shall keep and maintain the licensed premises equipped with running hot and cold water and adequate sanitary washing facilities for the cleansing of glasses and service utensils, shall provide separate and adequate toilet facilities for both males and females meeting the applicable requirements of Sections 18-29-403.1 through 18-29-403.6 and Section 18-29-404 of this Code and shall comply with all the health, sanitary and inspection requirements of Chapter 4-8 of this Code.

If you reference those other sections, the code lays out exactly how many male and female restroom facilities, by type and by floor, that a bar or restaurant must maintain based on capacity and layout.

Now, it could be argued that a business might have "separate and adequate toilet facilities for both males and females" by having separate, private, single-occupancy restrooms, but that may not satisfy the other referenced code sections. In any event, that has not been the way that the city's liquor inspectors have, at least in some instances, interpreted this rule. As a result, some restaurants (who are understandably wary of being cited) have played it safe.

Floriole Cafe & Bakery in Lincoln Park recently bucked this trend and made their restrooms gender-neutral. The motivation was part practical, part political. "There’s always a line for the women's bathroom. I’m thinking this is just silly, why can’t they be for everyone?" said owner Sandra Holl. "There’s also the political aspect—oh my gosh, what is happening in so many states?"

Holl knows about the code requirements, and Floriole serves liquor, but she's hoping she won't get cited. Her customers, however, have responded well, including the customers who originally requested that she make the change. The Instagram post with the bathroom's new sign has gotten nearly 600 likes, with a ton of positive comments.

Pub Royale, owned by Heisler Hospitality, switched their restrooms to gender-neutral in mid-2016. General Manager Jenn Fink explained the change to us: "It felt like a no brainer to make the switch to gender-neutral, especially considering the societal changes regarding gender fluidity. We definitely aim to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible," he said. Customers reacted positively, but Heisler didn't say whether he were worried about violating city code.

The city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection did not give a substantive response to our inquiries about the policy-specifically, what exactly the city is instructing its inspectors to do when restaurants and bars change their restroom facilities to gender-neutral. The City of Chicago affirmed its commitment to trans-friendly bathroom access last year, but exactly how that stance interacts with the liquor laws is unclear.

Historically, these types of laws were often enacted to ensure that women had equal access to adequate facilities, especially in traditionally male spaces like bars and taverns. If a bar owner wanted to keep a bar gender-segregated, one way to do so was to refuse to install facilities for women. Not a lot of women would come to such a bar, and the men got to keep their boys club. Hence the requirements for equal facilities.

However, these days, when more and more bars and restaurants are building single-occupancy restrooms (and want to take the needs of their trans customers into account), the law as written may have outlived its usefulness. Plus, even for customers who aren't trans, waiting outside a perfectly fine single-occupancy restroom because the sign has a different gender on it always seems a little comical.