Officials: Evanston businesses complying with gender neutral signage ordinance

Elena Sucharetza, Assistant City Editor

Evanston businesses are so far complying with a gender neutral signage ordinance that took effect at the beginning of 2016 after it was unanimously approved in October, city officials said.

When the ordinance was initially approved, City Council had bypassed rules requiring a two-week waiting period before an ordinance is given final approval due to widespread agreement.

Mark Muenzer, the city’s director of community development and LGBT liaison, said most questions from businesses regarding the ordinance have been mostly clarification questions about what types of signage is allowed for businesses in order to comply with the ordinance.

The ordinance mandates that all buildings with one single occupancy restroom use gender neutral signage, and buildings with three or more restrooms require at least one bathroom to have the signage as well. Due to certain limits of an Illinois Plumbing Code, if an establishment has two restrooms, one is required to be labeled for women, and the other for men, Muenzer said. He said that although no date has been set for a discussion, city officials are looking into ways to bypass the code’s requirements.

“It’s not really a political thing, it’s just about issues that are not addressed in the code right now,” he said. “Transgender and gender neutral issues are coming to the forefront in the state code so we will be investigating ways to possibly get past those issues.”  

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz told The Daily earlier this month the main barrier to full compliance with the ordinance has been discomfort with the original design city staff offered for the signage.

He said the staff’s design, a hybrid of the standard men and women signs, was considered “awkward” by some, but he said businesses are able to use their own signage as long as it meets ordinance requirements.

“It’s iconography, that’s the issue,” Bobkiewicz said. “(Staff) looked at what other communities were using. As long as people understand the intent, the sign can be whatever the sign can be.”

Transgender activist and star of the Freeform television program “Becoming Us” Carly Lehwald said she was consulted by city staff during the passing of the ordinance about the signage requirements.

Lehwald, who now lives in Chicago, said when she was in Evanston, she did not witness any significant pushback against the ordinance and thinks all public restrooms should eventually be classified as gender neutral.

“The whole bathroom thing needs to be debunked and demystified,” Lehwald said. “It’s completely overrated. It is genitalia focused. It is gender focused. It is this big hypermasculinized fear America has.”  

She said although there have not been any major complaints from the Evanston community, the issues surrounding gender neutral signage are just the beginning of progress for the transgender community in Evanston and other locations. She said she had recently visited a building where every restroom was gender neutral and no issues resulted from the setup.  

“All restrooms should be gender neutral,” Lehwald said. “No more urinals. People should be able to go into a locked stall by themselves and have it be normal.”   

Bobkiewicz said the ordinance is meant to help transgender residents in the Evanston community feel more secure about their place in the community and their identities.

“Certainly (Evanston) is a community that’s known for being very tolerant and very progressive and we want people to feel comfortable here,” he said.

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