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POST-DISPATCH: Move to make some St. Louis County restrooms gender-neutral gets pushback from GOP councilmen

Move to make some St. Louis County restrooms gender-neutral gets pushback from GOP councilmen

CLAYTON — A recent decision to change signs on some St. Louis County restrooms has sparked criticism from some conservatives, including Councilman Ernie Trakas, who said the move was part of an assault on traditional religious and family values.

County Executive Sam Page issued the executive order to designate about 300 single-stall restrooms in county government buildings, mostly used by employees or their visitors, as gender neutral by updating “all appropriate signage accordingly.”

The order, signed April 2, came at the requestof Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, working with LGBTQ civil rights advocacy groups, who said it was a simple step to make county government more welcoming to transgender or gender nonconforming people excluded by a binary gender system.

“The lack of affirmative policy results in many LGBTQ+ residents being oppressed or unnecessarily burdened on a daily basis,” Clancy, a Democrat, said in a letter to Page.

But, at a recent meeting of the County Council, Trakas and the council’s two other Republicans, Tim Fitch and Mark Harder, questioned Page at length about the need for the order and how it would be implemented.

Trakas was vocal in his objection, asserting that Page’s executive order was part of a nationwide initiative “designed and intended to erode, compromise and ultimately nullify” the “free exercise of religious beliefs and the values inherent in those beliefs.”

Page’s order “must be scrutinized in concert” with other proposals by Clancy that he said would “impose” a local version of the proposed Equality Act, a bill before the U.S. Senate that would enshrine LGBTQ protections in federal labor and civil rights laws. Trakas argued the protections were already present under current law banning discrimination on the basis of sex.

Clancy is also planning legislation that would specifically add gender identity and expression to all of the county’s anti-discrimination regulations, and update parts of the county charter with gender-neutral language.

“To be clear,” Trakas said, “my objection to these measures is not about preventing anyone from making a lifestyle choice. This is about protecting the free exercise of religious beliefs and the values inherent in those beliefs.” He voiced similar concerns in a letter to Page in February, long before the executive order was issued.

Fitch said the restrooms were “already gender-neutral because anybody can use them” and asked Page to “explain what your executive order changes or does,” before asking Page if all the restrooms have locks. Page said that, according to the county’s public works department, they did.

Harder repeatedly asked what procedures would be in place to escort members of the public to county restrooms, many of which are located in nonpublic areas of government buildings.

“If someone walks in and … we have to then take them to where these restrooms are … how will that be done going forward?” Harder asked.

Page said his order didn’t address that question, but only “changes the sign on single-stall restrooms to simply say ‘restroom.’”

“If someone comes into a county building and asks to use the restroom, I’m sure that someone in county government will help them, as anyone would try to accommodate someone who asks to use the restroom,” Page said.

Transgender athletes

The council also struck a partisan divide over a resolution by Clancy criticizing a Republican measure in the Missouri Legislature that would limit transgender athletes, affirming the council’s support for transgender youth and LGBTQ people. The bill is part of a surge of bills filed across the country seeking to ban transgender athletes from playing on teams aligning with their gender.

“We owe it to our transgender neighbors, community members and constituents to make our commitment to their safety and inclusion clear,” Clancy said.

Republicans opposed Clancy’s resolution because it expressed solidarity with, among organizations fighting the bill, the organization NARAL, which advocates for abortion access and often endorses Democratic politicians.

“I’ve always said I’m against any kind of discrimination,” Harder said. “But when you start bringing in different bathrooms, you start aligning with abortion providers and others, you’re not winning my vote, unfortunately.”

The letter Clancy wrote to Page requesting the executive order noted it was one among many policy goals in a June 2020 resolution recognizing Pride Month, a month commemorating the struggle by LGBTQ people against discrimination and for civic rights.

Fitch cosponsored the resolution. Trakas and Harder abstained from the vote.

In interviews last week, Fitch and Harder said they were not opposed to Page’s executive order and that their questions didn’t relate to Trakas’ criticism of other proposals by Clancy.

But Harder said that specifics in anti-discrimination clauses or resolutions, including for gender identity and expression, put “one group over another.”

“The laws on the books right now are broad enough to cover many different groups and areas of our society and we need to stay with that so we’re not putting one group above another,” he said.

Clancy said the sentiment undermined Harder’s statements that he opposes “any kind of discrimination.”

“I hear an exception there — ‘except when we’re talking about trans people or LGBTQ people,’” she said. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard for him and some of my other colleagues to actually name things for what they are.”

Feeling included

At a time when state legislatures have proposed limits on transgender athletes, and transgender people often face discrimination in public life, an executive order declaring bathrooms gender-neutral goes a long way, said Shira Berkowitz with the statewide LGBTQ rights advocacy group PROMO.

Questions about locks and security are “a misunderstanding of what the issue is.”

“Just being able to do something as simple as use the restroom without questioning if that’s the acceptable place to be is really important for just lowering the consistent anxiety that it is to be transgender,” Berkowitz said.

In 2012, the County Council, in a 4-3 vote, added gender identity and sexual orientation to the county’s anti-discrimination hate crimes law, after meetings that brought out dozens of speakers on both sides of the bill who spoke passionately about religion and civil rights.

The ordinance at the time added protections for people in employment, housing and public accommodations in unincorporated areas, regardless of their sexual orientation, and protections on the basis of gender and disability, but only applied in unincorporated areas of the county. The move followed similar legislation in St. Louis and several municipalities in the county, including Clayton, Creve Coeur, Ferguson, Richmond Heights and University City.

Clancy said her new legislation would update all county nondiscrimination ordinances to include the specific protection for gender identity and expression.

Even if federal laws implement specific protections, it’s important to codify them at a local level to ensure enforcement and help locals feel included, Berkowitz said.

“Naming it explicitly is really important to codifying that in policy,” Berkowitz said. “Representation is the most important piece to creating a space, whether a workplace or a governing body, that sees all of the people in the room that it’s speaking to.”

As LGBTQ rights and visibility have expanded in recent years, the change has prompted a backlash among conservatives who view policy proposals specifically for transgender or gender nonbinary people as challenging their view “that God created male and female and there is no in-between,” said R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. They have argued the changes infringe on their religious liberties.

But the interpretation leaves out “a huge number of religious Americans — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — who support transgender people and LGBT policies and don’t see this as threatening to their faith,” Griffith said.

“There are progressive religious people seeing these issues as questions of justice, similar to racial justice and other fights for justice, and really motivated in part by their religious convictions,” she said.

In the Missouri Legislature, a House vote last week to advance the Republican-backed transgender athlete bill fell mostly along party lines — with exceptions. Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican, voted with Democrats against the measure, while Rep. Alan Gray, D-Black Jack, voted present.

Dogan, who is considering running for St. Louis County executive next year, said the measure “hurts” Missouri’s reputation: “This makes us look backwards not forwards,” Dogan said.

Dogan, who is Black, said a lot of the people on the floor were “straight, white, male Republicans” and that “when you come into this chamber, you are a majority.… I just encourage you to try and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.”

P.O. Box 410091
Saint Louis, MO 63141
Paid for by Page for Missouri, Sue Felling, Treasurer

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