Denver's New Neutral-Gender Bathroom Signs and How They'll Be Enforced

The gender-neutral signs above and those that follow appear as examples on the Denver web page about the new rules.
The gender-neutral signs above and those that follow appear as examples on the Denver web page about the new rules.
Denver has a new rule requiring that all single-occupant public restrooms in the city have gender-neutral signs, and businesses that violate the ordinance may face escalating fines. But Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for the city's Community Planning Department, thinks that in most cases, a warning will be enough.

"Our goal isn't to be punitive," Swartz says of the regulation, which went into effect on April 30. "It's to educate."

Bathroom signage became a big issue in March 2016, with North Carolina's Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which stated that individuals visiting government buildings could only use the restroom that corresponded to their gender as identified by their birth certificate. LGBTQ activists instantly identified the measure as an attack on the transgender community, and the act was repealed the following March due largely to embarrassing publicity and the potential loss of revenue. The 2017 NBA All-Star game was not held in North Carolina because of the legislation.

Denver officials sent a message of their own during this period.

"City Council passed an amendment to our building code in December 2016," Swartz notes. "That amendment put a requirement in place that all single-occupant bathrooms should be gender-neutral" — meaning that transgender individuals could use the restroom of their choice.

Still, Swartz emphasizes that "this has more nuances. Transgender was a huge component: Our LGBTQ Commission was a big part of putting this forward. But if you're a parent with a young child, you don't have to worry about finding someone of the same sex to take a child to the bathroom when the caregiver is a different gender. And it also helps people who are tired of waiting in the hour-long women's line at businesses that have more than one single-occupant restroom. So there are a lot of conveniences for everyone in the city."

Thanks to the council's actions, the amendment "was immediately effective for all new construction," Swartz adds, "and for any projects approved after that, their single-occupant bathrooms should already be gender-neutral. But there was an extension for existing buildings and businesses that didn't need to come in and do a remodel."

According to Swartz, "it's difficult to make something to go into effect immediately, with no forewarning. So we spent the last year and a half reaching out to the restaurant community, breweries and a lot of other businesses to let people know what this was."

As a result of these efforts, "a lot of businesses have already been doing this. If you go downtown on the 16th Street Mall, most of those little businesses had changed their signs over before we even passed the amendment."

The City of Denver web page about the gender-neutral rule includes numerous examples of acceptable signage, as seen throughout this post. But businesses that choose not to use any of them won't necessarily be in violation of the ordinance.

"People can get really creative — and I've seen a couple of ones around town that are pretty cute," Swartz says. "But the only thing you can't do is imply a gender through a picture or text. If it's an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] bathroom or a family bathroom, you still have to somehow state that's the case. But it doesn't have to use the phrase 'gender-neutral.' If you only want to use the word 'restroom' or 'toilet,' that's fine, as long as you're not saying it's for only men or only women."

Regarding businesses that don't comply, Swartz acknowledges that "there may still be a lot of people who haven't heard about this. So if one of their customers calls 311 and an inspector visits and says the sign isn't allowed, they'll tell the business owner, 'This is what's going on, this is why we're doing it, and we will follow up.' At that point, owners will receive a thirty-day notice to make the change."

After that, she continues, "we'll go through the standard process for municipal codes and property codes throughout the city. If our inspector goes out again and the sign hasn't been fixed, it's a $150 fine, and it can go up from there."

Then again, "the cost of a bathroom sign is probably $15 or $20, which is a lot less than $150. And putting a new one up in thirty days should be achievable."

The details don't end there. "It's important that people know this doesn't apply to bathrooms with multiple stalls instead of one occupant at a time," Swartz says. "And the exterior bathroom door has to have a door lock on it. In most places, that already exists, but every once in a while, there's a one-occupant bathroom, and within that, there's a stall door for the toilet. If that's the case, the exterior door and not just the stall door has to have a lock on it."

If anyone is unclear about the new sign rule, Swartz encourages them to contact the Community Planning Department at the address below. "We're happy to let you know what counts and doesn't count," she says. "We just want to create a more inclusive community."

Click to get more details about Denver's rules regarding gender-neutral signage on single-occupant restrooms.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts