During his 36-minute State of the City speech Tuesday, Mayor Javier Gonzales talked about economic, educational and environmental issues, collaboration and boosting the film industry, among other matters of importance.
But it was the few seconds that he spent talking about toilets that stole the spotlight.
The mayor’s proposal to require every single-stall public bathroom in Santa Fe to be gender-neutral has generated the most attention, including headlines in the Miami Herald and Washington Times and stories by at least three Albuquerque-based TV stations, one of which declared: “Transgender bathrooms on top of mayor’s to-do list.”
The mayor’s proposed resolution has also spawned several misconceptions, the most common being that men and women would have to share a bathroom at the same time, as well as derogatory comments online.
“Well, in Santa Fe it’s frequently difficult to visually determine the gender of some of its citizens so a ‘non-gender’ outhouse may make sense,” a man who identified himself as Phil Nelson commented on a story on kob.com.
Gonzales, who is openly gay, said there has been a “complete misconception” that his proposal would make multi-stall bathrooms unisex.
“As a city, we’re at our best when we make sure we do everything to protect and keep everyone safe, and we’re at our worst when we let our fears drive the discussion of the day,” Gonzales said in an interview. “That’s what I’m not going to let happen.”
Under the mayor’s proposal, a bathroom with one stall — essentially a bathroom designed for one person at a time — wouldn’t have a “Men” or “Women” sign outside. The bathroom would be gender-neutral. In other words, anybody — a man or a woman, as well as people who don’t identify with either gender — could use the same bathroom.
“The ordinance will not eliminate separate bathrooms for men and women,” City Councilor Signe Lindell, a lesbian, wrote on her Facebook page. “It simply adds a more inclusive option wherever we have single toilet bathrooms. Let’s dispense with the hysterics.”
Businesses without a single-stall bathroom wouldn’t have to build a new one. By and large, businesses would just have to change the sign outside the door and likely install a lock if the bathroom didn’t already have one. Some businesses in the city, such as the Starbucks on West San Francisco Street downtown, already have gender-neutral bathrooms.
“It’s not going to change anything in terms of people’s privacy or what’s happening in multi-stall bathrooms across the city,” Gonzales said. “Those are all going to stay dedicated solely to men or solely to women.”
Gonzales said he learned about the need for gender-neutral bathrooms from members of the city’s transgender community during the mayoral campaign.
“It was a promise I made, that if I was elected mayor, that it would be something that I would come forward with,” he said.
Santa Fe resident Ethan Bach, who transitioned from female to male in 2000, said gender-specific bathrooms are a source of anxiety for transgender people.
“It can be a real hassle for them, say, if they’re early in transition or they decide not to do hormones or they just physically have stronger features or softer features than what people would typically think should be male or female,” Bach said. “It’s unsafe for them to even go into a bathroom that matches their gender identity.”
The mayor said he is working with the City Attorney’s Office on the language of the proposed resolution. He said he anticipates public hearings on the proposal and a City Council vote toward the end of spring or early summer.
Nick Maryol, owner of Tia Sophia’s, said he was ambivalent about the mayor’s proposal.
“I’m all for people being who they are, but I think the mayor’s time would be much better spent, say, focusing on the economy of the city, something that benefits us all, focusing on getting the convention center filled up,” he said. “Frankly, if someone is born female and identifies as a male and uses the men’s bathroom, I have no problem with that without the law.”
Karen Cribari, manager at Tomasita’s, said her personal opinion was: “Who cares?”
“I don’t know what Tomasita’s opinion is, but as a person who lives in Santa Fe, I don’t have a problem [with the mayor’s proposal]. I lived in California for a long time,” she said, laughing.
Gender-neutral bathrooms are part of a growing trend across the nation, at least on college campuses and universities.
“We would hear stories from students who would actually plan their class schedules around where they could find safe, single-stall restrooms to go to,” said Frankie Flores, who works in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Resource Center at The University of New Mexico. The school, Flores said, has at least 10 gender-neutral bathrooms.
“We knew a couple of students who would not eat or drink during the day because they were afraid of having to go to the bathroom,” Flores said.
Santa Fe is among cities at the forefront of the issue. Austin and Philadelphia have already passed laws that deal with gender-neutral bathrooms. Philadelphia’s law, for example, requires that new or renovated city-owned buildings include them.
“You’re very forward thinking and ahead of the curve on this because I think most cities aren’t really thinking about this issue,” said Genny Beemyn, director of The Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It’s really important, particularly for a lot of younger people who identify outside of a gender binary or present outside of a gender binary who don’t feel comfortable using a men’s or a women’s restroom.”
Beemyn, who identifies as “gender nonconforming” — neither male nor female — is doing a study of college students who identify as gender nonconforming.
“One of the questions that I asked them is, ‘Where is your college failing?’ And almost to a single person they say, ‘There are not gender-inclusive bathrooms or there are not enough gender-inclusive bathrooms,’ ” Beemyn said.
For Gonzales, the issue is about equality.
“It’s a small effort that’s not going to inconvenience a single person in Santa Fe but will go a long way to sending a powerful message to the transgender community that when we say we’re a community of being inclusive, we mean for everybody,” the mayor said. “There are no boundaries or limitations in that statement of inclusivity.”
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danieljchacon.