How to Address Transgender Bathroom Issues

May 13, 2016

North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom law,” which requires individuals to use restrooms corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity, has prompted questions over what responsibilities businesses and employers have to accommodate the preferences of transgender people. The legal war over the issue—North Carolina and the U.S. government have deployed dueling lawsuits over whether the state’s law violates civil rights protections—is far from being settled. Courts have rarely addressed the matter, but the legal landscape surrounding the issue is sure to change in the future.

So if you’re a property manager, what do you need to know about bathroom policy to ensure you’re not infringing on anyone’s rights? “There’s very little guidance on this issue right now, which makes it hard for you to decide what to do,” said Beth Wanless, senior director of government affairs at the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), during a property management forum Thursday at the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C.

At least 200 cities and counties in the U.S. have banned discrimination based on gender identity in various aspects, including employment, housing, and public accommodations. But few of these laws specifically address the use of bathrooms. IREM has written a white paper on the topic of restroom policy, offering what guidance it can to property managers.

First, research state and local laws to understand whether legal requirements exist in your jurisdiction around public restroom policy. Where no law exists, IREM suggests the following ideas to proactively address the issue in your buildings.

  • The safest and least controversial option may be to add a third gender-neutral bathroom option alongside male and female restrooms. These gender-neutral bathrooms are typically single occupancy facilities available for anyone to use. However, it’s not always cost-effective because it could require building new bathrooms or retrofitting existing ones.
  • Another option is to modify the signage of existing bathrooms to include language welcoming transgender individuals. IREM points to signage some commercial properties are starting to use that reads: “Male, transgender people welcome” and “Female, transgender people welcome.”
  • For smaller commercial properties like restaurants or bars that already have single-use bathrooms, a simple option is to replace male and female signage with a generic “restrooms” sign that has no gender identification.

—Graham Wood, REALTOR® Magazine