The most contentious part of Charlotte’s recent debate over LGBT rights – transgender bathroom use – has resurfaced with an unexpected revelation.
In March, the Charlotte City Council rejected a nondiscrimination proposal that would have forced private businesses to accommodate lesbian, gay and transgender people. The proposal drew protests over a provision that gave transgender people access to the restroom of their gender identity at any place of public accommodation, including city property.
But it turns out the city is already following that approach at its own facilities.
City Manager Ron Carlee says transgender employees and visitors not only have the right to use the restroom of their gender identity in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center, but also in other city-owned facilities such as Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Ovens Auditorium, Bojangles’ Arena and the convention center. The latter three are owned by the city but managed by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which confirmed the practice.
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Mecklenburg County officials say they use a similar approach in county-operated buildings and parks.
And both governments are doing so without an official policy on the matter.
The restroom issue became a rallying point for opponents of the city’s scrapped nondiscrimination policy, with many expressing fear that allowing transgender people into the restroom of their identity would endanger women and children. The broader proposal would have prohibited private businesses that provide public services from discriminating based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Council members amended the ordinance to remove the bathroom provision. The proposal still failed to get enough votes for passage. Council members LaWana Mayfield and John Autry support transgender rights and voted against the proposal because the bathroom provision was removed.
News that the city is accommodating transgender patrons in all its facilities is a surprise to some council members who voted against the ordinance.
Council member Kenny Smith says he doesn’t support the approach. But Smith doesn’t believe Carlee has overstepped boundaries because the city manager didn’t create a policy, nor is he dictating to CRVA how to manage buildings. CRVA says it was already using that approach.
“My personal opinion is, whether it’s a city-owned facility or a privately owned facility, you should use the bathroom based on your biological makeup,” Smith said.
“I’d also support a council initiative to change (the current practice), if it were presented. From a timing standpoint, we have bigger issues right now, such as a $21 million revenue gap. I’m not sure now is the time to revisit the policy.”
Council member and mayoral candidate Michael Barnes is among those who voted against the nondiscrimination ordinance. He said Carlee did not consult with him before issuing the city’s newly clarified stance, and he did not want to comment any further.
Council member Ed Driggs also is among those who voted against the ordinance. Driggs said he believes the city’s approach raises safety concerns, and he anticipated the matter would come up again.
“The ordinance would have made it harder to keep track of who was going into the restroom, because you didn’t know the gender identity of someone,” he said. “People could go (to the restroom) anywhere they wanted, and the reason we have separate bathrooms to start with is so people can enjoy privacy among their own gender.”
The clarification of the city’s approach was set in motion when, during the City Council’s debate in March, a transgender woman complained because she was escorted from a women’s restroom by police at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center.
City officials have denied she was forced to leave the restroom, referring to it as a misunderstanding.
The woman involved, Janice Covington Allison, wrote a series of letters to city leaders, asking that they avoid future confusion by expanding the city’s existing nondiscrimination policy that applied to employees to also include transgender visitors to city buildings.
“I think this is a minor adjustment and it would prevent myself and others from being harassed while we are conducting business with the city,” Allison said in her request.
On April 9, Carlee answered Allison, saying the city’s “practice has been and will continue to be that persons may use the restroom of the gender with which they identify.” He told the Observer that this is not a change but has been the city’s practice.
Allison, an official with the state’s Democratic Party, lauded Carlee’s response, calling it a start toward equal rights for transgender people in Charlotte. She continues to support passage of a city law forbidding discrimination of any kind against LGBT people.
“Some on the City Council complained that they saw no reason for an LGBT nondiscrimination policy, since they had not received any examples of there being a problem,” Allison said. “Well, what happened to me in a city restroom is an example of a problem. Let the record of problems start there.”
The incident was similar to one reported in 2014 by a Central Piedmont Community College transgender student, who said she was stopped and questioned after exiting a women’s restroom on campus. The college says it is working to avoid a repeat of the situation by including more gender-neutral restrooms on campus.
Time Warner Cable Arena, which is a city property but is operated by the Charlotte Hornets, has added private restrooms on every level.
Council member David Howard believes the city’s current approach on transgender use of restrooms is appropriate.
“No policy is needed …,” Howard said. “I feel we’ve been stuck in the box on this issue, making it harder than we have to be.”
Still, the advocacy group Equality NC says Carlee has taken an important action for LGBT rights. Jen Jones of Equality NC said there is no statewide law protecting gay or transgender people in public accommodations.
“Transgender people currently have no rights when it comes to restroom usage in state-owned buildings and parks,” she said. “This is also accurate for city restrooms in light of the failed (nondiscrimination) ordinance. We applaud the city of Charlotte if they’ve now made the decision to add these protections administratively.”
The Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who helped organize the opposition, said the city’s approach is confusing and disappointing to conservatives who feel they won a victory when the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance failed.
“It’s been about eight weeks or less since the City Council dealt with this issue in what all of us know was a very challenging, emotionally grueling experience for both sides,” Harris said.
“The council cast their vote (against the policy) and now the city manager is taking a pretty substantial piece of that ordinance and declaring it legal or acceptable. It’s sending a confusing message to the citizens of Charlotte when people in positions of authority such as this go around leaders who are elected.”