Aquatics facilities don’t typically find themselves at the center of civil rights disputes or gender equality issues. But my, how things have changed. These days aquatics facilities, health clubs, educational institutions and many other operations with locker rooms or restrooms have found themselves tangled up in the latest gender equality debate.
At the heart of the issue is the rights of transgender people (those who identify with the opposite gender that they were assigned at birth) and their right to access the bathroom/locker room of the gender with which they identify.
Last month, we provided background on the origins of the transgender movement and shed light on the laws that protect transgender people, as well as those restricting transgender access and the arguments on both sides. We’ll now take a closer look at how these laws have impacted aquatics facilities and ways the industry may have to change in the future.
State of the Industry
Evans Pool in Seattle recently came face to face with transgender bathroom access laws. Near the end of 2015, a Washington state regulation passed that allows people to select bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. It’s a clarification of a 2006 state law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Two months later, in what is largely considered to be a flagrant attempt to test the regulation, a man walked into the women’s locker room at Evans Pool and began to change his clothes. When asked to leave, the man said, “The law has changed, and I have the right to be here,” according to King 5 NBC News in Seattle. Although the man returned to the women’s locker room a second time, he was not arrested.
“It was an isolated case,” says David Takami, communications manager of Seattle Parks & Recreation. “We deal with hundreds of people every day at our pools without incident.”
Takami does not anticipate further changes to the Seattle Parks & Recreation policies as a result of the man’s actions. “Our policy is to accommodate transgender people…it’s the state law.”
As Aquatics International previously reported, seventeen states have adopted laws prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation based on gender identity. And as more states begin to officially recognize transgender rights, changes to bathroom/locker room facilities may be coming to an aquatics facility near you. Simple fixes include providing private changing areas within existing gender-specific spaces with the use of curtains.
“I think that is the direction that we’re moving in as an industry,” says Shawn DeRosa, owner of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting and director of aquatics at Pennsylvania State University.
These actions may even be appreciated by other aquatics patrons who are seeking a little more privacy in the locker room.
DeRosa also notes that while it can’t hurt to have gender neutral, unisex or family changing areas available to patrons, he cautions against requiring transgender individuals to use these facilities.
“We cannot tell someone, ‘You must use the family changing area,’ or ‘You must use the unisex,’” says DeRosa. “What we can do is say, ‘We have these available should you wish to use them.’”
Other changes aquatics facilities may consider is a modification of their dress codes. Some facilities ban the use of T-shirts in the pool, but transgender people may feel more comfortable if they’re permitted to have a little extra coverage.
“Most transgender people are not exhibitionists,” says Robin Benton, professor of aquatic management in the sport and movement science department at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. “They’re not trying to get people to look at them, so the more they can blend in, the happier they are.”
Asking all patrons for either a state-issued ID or a facility membership ID upon entrance can also help prevent bathroom-access issues, says Benton. Most people who identify as transgender have not had sex-affirming surgery, in large part because the procedures are incredibly expensive and not often covered by insurance plans. This may be why 29 states do not require sex-affirming surgery to change gender on a driver’s license. Therefore, the majority of pool patrons who identify as transgender also will have their gender of choice printed on their driver’s license. The ID information can be scanned and recorded into the facility’s system for easy retrieval. So, if your staff is questioned by patrons who feel that someone may be using the wrong facilities, they can look up that person’s ID and quickly put an end to any concerns.While most current estimates place the transgender population at only about 0.5-2 percent of the U.S., showing sensitivity on the matter will benefit all involved.