A restroom, a symbol

In November 2011, I found myself making a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., to be part of a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building, for the uninitiated, is a sizable structure on the west side of the White House grounds. It includes some 566 rooms and covers roughly 600,000 square feet.

I cannot tell you how many of those rooms happen to be restrooms and, perhaps for obvious reasons, detailed floor plans of the building are not exactly easy for people to get their hands on.

One of them, however, is important. It is the first gender-neutral restroom at the White House for visitors and staff members.

Now I think we can all agree that a single gender-neutral bathroom in a 600,000-square-foot building isn’t a lot. This is also only one building within the White House grounds. For that matter, the administration allows staff and visitors to use any restroom they feel is consistent with their gender identity. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps this one restroom is not really that big a deal. And yet, it is.

In conjunction with this restroom at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building came a ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stating that denying transgender people access to restrooms and not respecting name changes violate federal sex-discrimination laws.

The ruling is born out of a case brought by Tamara Lusardi, an Army employee who was denied the use of a women’s room after her transition. She also had supervisors that regularly disrespected her gender identity and outed her to others.

The EEOC move is not unexpected: The administration has consistently argued that transgender people can and should be protected, including in previous findings by the EEOC that included transgender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under this ruling, the EEOC ordered the Army to pay damages and attorney fees, as well as conduct trainings for all employees and supervisors at the facility where Lusardi works.

In the last few months, we have seen the battle over transgender restroom rights reach a fever pitch, with six states so far introducing bills to prohibit transgender people from using the restroom of their preference. What the administration has done is fire a broadside at each of these states, showing where the federal government stands on the issue.

I’ve talked before about all that this administration has done for transgender Americans, including the end of gender “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration, the inclusion of trans health care in the Affordable Care Act, forward-thinking policies for trans passport use and policy changes throughout the administration to aid transgender people.

As our president reaches the end of his time in the White House — rather than slowing down and cruising through his “lame duck” term — he seems to be growing bolder. His most recent State of the Union speech, for example, was the first ever to include the word “transgender.” This EEOC move — and yes, that single gender-neutral restroom — moves things that much further.

While it seems, lately, that the only news to be had involving transgender people is where they are allowed to relieve themselves of bodily waste, there is much more. Here, too, you’ll find this administration at work.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was a special one, with the White House holding the first-ever briefing on issues facing transgender women of color. Trans women of color are disproportionately discriminated against, and a far greater target for violence and murder. This also follows the first Transgender Day of Remembrance event held at the White House in November.

On the same day of the EEOC ruling, the administration responded to a petition started after the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. In its response, the administration made it clear that it supports the banning of so-called “conversion therapy,” designed to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. There is no evidence that such treatments are in any way effective, and plenty of evidence that they do more harm than good.

Health care is another hot-button issue for transgender people: Last month, a federal court ruled that the Affordable Care Act does indeed prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. The case, Rumble v. Fairview Health Services, involved a transgender man who was misgendered and given poor care due to his trans status. The hospital argued that anti-trans discrimination was not covered under the ACA — an opinion the court did not agree with.

Finally, the Department of Justice has filed its first lawsuit on behalf of a transgender person. In United States of America v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma, the administration is claiming that Rachel Tudor was discriminated against after her 2007 transition. Like Lusardi, she was informed she could only use a single-stall restroom at some distance from her office. She was also repeatedly barred from promotion and tenure.

There is a certain irony that, in the wake of two cases that include transgender people being forced to use a single stall and presumably gender-neutral restroom, the administration would make a symbolic offering of a gender-neutral restroom on the White House grounds.

Nevertheless, this, in conjunction with the above, sends a clear message that transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans do indeed have the right to use whatever facilities they identify with — even if they do not feel comfortable in a gender-designated restroom. More than this, particularly in a time when transgender rights are more and more tied to public accommodations, it says, once again, that our rights matter.