Gender-neutral bathrooms encouraged in Columbia

Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 4:43 p.m. CDT; updated 2:52 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 12, 2013

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the organizations involved with the promotion of gender-neutral bathrooms.

COLUMBIA — Gender-neutral bathrooms are coming of age in Columbia.

Following cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Columbia is taking steps to encourage businesses with one-toilet bathrooms to make them gender-neutral.

These single-occupancy bathrooms can serve the function of family, assisted-use and unisex bathrooms.

Columbia City Council amended the city's plumbing code in September to give businesses the option of having two gender-neutral bathrooms, rather than one male and one female bathroom.

*The MU Student Health Center, Sexual Health @ MU, Services for Independent Living and the Center Project are working on programs to encourage the switch. Heather Eastman-Mueller, who works with the Student Health Center, led the initiative and wrote a grant requesting money for education.

The city's Human Rights Commission provided $500 to be used to pay for education to promote the availability of family-assisted bathrooms in the District. The outreach will include safe space training and providing family-assisted bathroom signs, said Steve Hollis, who was a staff liaison for the Human Rights Commission.

The Human Rights Commission first petitioned the council to change the plumbing code.

Philadelphia passed a law in May requiring that new or renovated city-owned buildings include gender-neutral bathrooms, according to various news reports.

Multnomah County, which includes Portland, started requiring single-occupancy, gender-neutral bathrooms in all new construction projects for the county in June, according to the Oregonian.

Under the previous Columbia code, places with public bathrooms with one toilet were required to have separate male and female bathrooms.

“Though the change will affect all members of the community in what I believe is a positive way, it will specifically have a positive impact on families, persons with disabilities and transgender individuals,” said Scott Dean, chairman of the Human Rights Commission.

“If one restroom is taken for a mother or father to change a diaper, there is no reason the other facility shouldn't be available to the next individual in line, regardless of their gender,” Dean said.

Gender-neutral bathrooms also help people with disabilities who may have opposite-sex attendants and transgender people who may not feel safe using a sex-specific bathroom.

Struby Struble, coordinator of the LGBTQ Resource Center at MU, said there are numerous single-occupancy bathrooms downtown that would be easy to convert to gender-neutral.

Struble said that people in the LGBTQ community have a general knowledge of which bathrooms they feel safer in, citing family bathrooms at the Columbia Mall as an example. She said that people might walk across the mall to use these gender-neutral bathrooms rather than use the male or female bathrooms in Target.

The change to the code will allow Columbia businesses to install gender-neutral bathrooms, but it does not make them mandatory.

Supervising Editor is John Schneller

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Michael Williams July 12, 2013 | 7:35 a.m.

Ok, I'm a guy.

And even I can hear the "Ewwwwwwwwwww!" of women faced with the prospect of entering where a guy just left.

I don't even like it much myself........

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