There’s no more men’s room at Durham’s Old Havana Sandwich Shop. No women’s room, either. That’s because owners Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull decided last week to change their restaurant’s single-stall bathrooms into unisex restrooms.
The couple are among the bar, restaurant and small-business owners in the Triangle who are expressing their opposition to the controversial new law that requires transgender residents to use the public restroom of their biological sex.
“For us, it just made a lot of sense,” Turnbull said this week. “It just never seemed like a pressing issue until it was.”
Lawmakers passed House Bill 2 last week in reaction to a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use bathrooms of the gender with which they identify. Supporters said they were preventing overreach by local government and protecting women and children from having to use the bathroom or locker rooms with people who were born the opposite sex. Critics say the bill now makes it legal to discriminate against LGBT people because it replaced local ordinances with a statewide nondiscrimination law that doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.
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Like Old Havana Sandwich Shop, some businesses converted or plan to convert their single-stall bathrooms to unisex. Others used the opportunity to remind customers they already have unisex bathrooms. Some hung signs opposing the law. A few struggled with what, if anything, they might be able to do with their multiple-stall, gender-specific bathrooms to make transgender customers feel welcome.
Not everyone opposes HB2. Earlier in the week, supporters sent out a statement saying more than 300 individuals had signed a letter thanking Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly for passing the law “affirming the privacy and safety of businesses, women and children,” according to the KeepNCsafe.org Coalition. Supporters also held a prayer vigil Thursday night outside the governor’s mansion.
Support for the law among business owners might not be all that evident, because it essentially means maintaining the status quo. But business owners who oppose the law are finding ways to make that known, if only with stickers in their windows.
Matt Hirschy, director of advancement for Equality NC, runs a program that asks business owners to take a pledge to not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees or customers. The businesses get a decal to display showing their support of the Equality Means Business program. Since the law passed last week, Hirschy has heard from business owners all over North Carolina.
“We had as many businesses sign up in a week as we had in a whole year,” said Hirschy, who had to order an additional 1,000 decals.
One of those business owners was chef Clark Barlowe, owner of Heirloom restaurant in Charlotte. “We have a lot of employees who are part of the LGBT community,” Barlowe said. “It would be hypocritical not to oppose HB2.”
Like the owners of Old Havana, Durham restaurant owner Mattie Beason decided to change the men’s and women’s single-stall bathrooms into unisex restrooms at Mattie B’s Public House. “It was in response,” Beason said this week. “It’s giving our state a bad reputation.”
Beason said the change has the added benefit that women will have a shorter wait for the bathroom.
At his other restaurant, Black Twig Cider House, which opened Thursday, Beason said he’s looking for unisex signs that indicate which restroom has a toilet and which has an urinal.
Customers enjoying lunch Thursday at Mattie B’s Public House were happy to hear the owner of one of their favorite lunch spots had made the change. “I think it’s awesome,” said Rafik Keith, 29, of Raleigh who works nearby. “I love Mattie B’s because they support diversity and they empower the community.”
Chris Carini, who has owned Linda’s Bar & Grill in Chapel Hill for five years, bought signs to change two of his single-stall bathrooms to gender neutral. The restaurant also has gender-specific bathrooms. “It’s the right thing to do,” said Carini, who emphasized he trains his staff to make everyone feel welcome and that this move is a continuation of that training.
Turnbull, a co-owner of Old Havana Sandwich Shop, also used a Facebook group to encourage other Durham businesses to post a flier opposing the new legislation. The sign, which reads: “We do not discriminate. We oppose HB2. #WeAreNotThis,” has appeared in storefronts in Raleigh and Durham.
Other small businesses that already have unisex bathrooms highlighted them while voicing their opposition to the new law. Raleigh bar owner Timothy Lemuel posted two signs last week in downtown’s Ruby Deluxe: One invited customers to use whichever restroom best meets their personal needs. Another cheeky sign said: “No Republicans.”
Customers came out to support Lemuel’s private club in response to his public opposition. He said the bar, which he describes as “pro alternative lifestyle,” had its best weekend since opening in August.
“We hit capacity,” Lemuel said. “We sold a ton of memberships.”
Sean Wilson, owner of Fullsteam brewery in Durham, said he tried to install unisex bathrooms in 2010 when the brewery opened, but the city wouldn’t approve it. The brewery is so large that big, multistall bathrooms, which ended up being gender specific, were required, he recalled. Wilson said he has two options: either add a third bathroom or modify the current ones. “It’s not an easy fix,” he said.
Personally, Wilson, who has a child who prefers to be identified as gender neutral, said he needed to do more than add a restroom.
“Many of us believe this isn’t really about bathrooms,” said Wilson, echoing a popular refrain on social media about how Jim Crow laws weren’t about water fountains or lunch counters.
Wilson sent a letter to McCrory on Wednesday requesting that a feature about Fullsteam on a state economic development website be removed. He added that Fullsteam would not participate in the annual Got to Be N.C. Festival or the N.C. State Fair and he no longer would agree to go on state-organized trips to solicit media coverage of the state’s craft beer industry. “I don’t want Fullsteam used as a tool for economic development at this time,” Wilson said.
In his letter, Wilson wrote: “I am not part of a nationwide campaign. I am merely a small business owner. But I believe it is in my company’s best interest to distance ourselves from your recent actions. I am hopeful that you will reconsider your decision, not because of the action of our little brewery, but because I believe there are thousands of companies like ours – big and small; in-state, domestic, and abroard – that believe your recent decision is bad, and bad for business.”