Scores of Philadelphia's public bathrooms would have to become gender-neutral and drop the labels "Men" and "Women" under legislation that is to be introduced Thursday in City Council.
The bill - which applies only to single-occupant bathrooms, not those with multiple stalls - would place Philadelphia among the first major U.S. cities to take a step long sought by transgender advocates.
"Using a public bathroom can be a highly stressful, rising to even dangerous experience for certain individuals," said Helen "Nellie" L. Fitzpatrick, director of Mayor Nutter's Office of LGBT Affairs, which drafted the bill. "It basically comes down to people policing other people's gender."
There are an estimated 700,000 transgender adults in the United States, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Advocates stress that for transgender people, access to restrooms is not just a matter of convenience but an issue of public safety due to potential discrimination.
A handful of cities, including Philadelphia, have already taken steps to make public bathrooms more inclusive. In 2006, Washington became the first city to require single-occupancy bathrooms be gender-neutral; Austin, Texas, and West Hollywood, Calif., have since enacted similar laws.
In 2013, as part of a sweeping LGBT-equality law introduced by then-Councilman Jim Kenney, now the Democratic mayoral nominee, Philadelphia required new or renovated city-owned buildings to have gender-neutral bathrooms in addition to men's and women's rooms. Fitzpatrick said that law, while significant, has had little impact - because few city buildings have been built since.
As the transgender-rights movement has gained increased national attention, the discussion has widened. In June, Seattle's mayor and New York City's comptroller called on their city councils to pass gender-neutral bathroom laws.
Elsewhere, opponents have introduced bills to criminalize use of single-sex bathrooms designated for people of other sexes, often arguing such steps will protect against sexual predators, according to a report prepared by New York's comptroller.
Earlier this year, the White House added a gender-neutral bathroom, one in a series of steps the Obama administration has taken to address LGBT issues.
Under current Philadelphia law, when both men's and women's rooms are available, individuals can opt for whichever fits their gender identity. Fitzpatrick said that in practice, though, hurtful and potentially dangerous situations can arise - when other people "police bathrooms based on what people think about somebody's gender presentation."
The new legislation, which is to be introduced Thursday by Councilman Mark Squilla as Council returns from its three-month summer recess, would affect any single-occupancy restroom accessible to the public and require gender-neutral signage.
It makes an exception for bathrooms where existing artwork signals the gender - such as a mustache on the men's room door, and a pair of red lips on the women's room door. The bill doesn't require removing such artwork- but any additional signs such as "Men" and "Women" would have to go, and signs making clear that anyone can use the bathroom must be added.
If the bill becomes law, businesses would have to comply within 90 days. Those that don't would face fines ranging from $75 up to $2,000 if they refuse to comply. But Fitzpatrick said that before fines are imposed, she plans to reach out to business owners and try to educate them on transgender needs, in hopes that they will then follow the law.
The draft legislation has received a positive first read from leaders of the city's restaurant industry. Melissa Bova, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the 15 members of her board from Philadelphia all were willing to make the change.
"I don't know the personal or religious preferences of certain business owners, so I didn't know if it was going to be an issue," Bova said. "But I have to be honest, they were all, like, 'We're in. Not a problem. Let's go.' "
Julie Chovanes, a local transgender advocate, recalled little pushback to the equality legislation Council passed in 2013, and said she anticipates that will be the case with this bill. "It's about the human dignity of trans people," she said.
Squilla agreed, calling Philadelphia a progressive city and saying his Council colleagues might have questions, but he expects they will add their support once they learn the bill targets only single-user bathrooms, which many local businesses already mark as gender neutral.
Fitzpatrick called it a simple fix that should be noncontroversial.
"It's a sign change," she said. "We're labeling restrooms as what they are: restrooms, not gender-monitored spaces."