Council guarantees public bathroom access for transgender people

The city is on track to close a loophole that could allow discrimination against transgender people. | Getty Images

Transgender people will be able to use the public bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, the Chicago City Council has decided.

A change in the city’s human rights ordinance, approved Wednesday with a handful of “no” votes, had passed out of committee earlier in June after emotional testimony from some ostracized transgender Chicagoans.

It closes a legal loophole that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has warned, could “inadvertently” allow restaurants, hotels and other “public accommodations” to discriminate against transgender people.

Though the city had become one of among the first in the nation to include gender identity as a protected class in its human rights ordinance, but that ordinance also exempted bathrooms, requiring people to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their government-issued identification.

Earlier this month, the Council’s Committee on Human Relations advanced the ordinance to the City Council floor, despite concerns about, what Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) called the “knucklehead effect.” That is, a man who claims to be transgender just to gain access to a women’s washroom.

“Some ladies are saying some guy is coming in the bathroom. I’m not saying he’s doing anything. He’s just in there. They’re just uncomfortable that guys are coming in the bathroom. You send a squad there. What’s the deal? If they identify as a woman, you guys turn around and tell the lady there’s nothing we can do? What’s the CPD policy?” Sposato asked at the time.

Captain Sean Joyce of the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Legal Affairs said that kind of complaint would trigger a police response and an investigation. But, he candidly replied, “There wouldn’t be an automatic violation of law just because a male stepped into a female washroom or vice-versa” unless a crime had been committed.

When Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) asked “what protections do we have” to prevent someone from falsely claiming they are transgender to gain access to public facilities, Human Relations Commissioner Mona Noriega did not pull any punches.

“You’re already showering next to people who are transgender and you don’t know it,” Noriega said.

Among who testified in favor of the ordinance was Lilly Wachowski, who wrote and directed the movie, “The Matrix.” She’s a 6-foot, 4-inch, 214.5-pound woman with a deep voice that makes her, as she put it, “unmistakably transgender.”

Filmmaker Lilly Wachowski testified in favor of the ordinance and told of a recent incident in which a woman was upset with her for using a department store changing room. Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The amendment approved by the full council essentially prohibits places such as hotels, restaurants and grocery stores from requiring patrons to show a “government-issued identification” upon request to access facilities “private in nature” such as restrooms “based on a person’s biological category, gender identity or both.”

Instead, the ordinance would state, “For purposes of this subsection, ‘sex’ includes both biological category and gender identity. Each person determines his or her own gender identity. No proof shall be required except his or her expression of his or her gender.”

“We should not require that anybody prove who they are” before using a public washroom, Noriega had said at that committee hearing.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is one of the City Council’s five openly gay aldermen.

Cappleman said it’s “about time” the City Council “recognize those who have suffered so much blatant discrimination” because of archaic language that literally forces transgender Chicagoans to “go the bathroom outside because they can’t go to a public bathroom.”

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