The owner of Guglhupf Bakery, Cafe and Restaurant says state code prevents her from opening her public bathrooms to all genders, as two former workers wanted the business to do.
The employees gave owner Claudia Cooper an ultimatum during the Sunday brunch rush: either post signs on the bathrooms opposing House Bill 2 or they would quit.
The employees had put up signs on the public bathroom doors that said, “All gender identities and expressions welcome! #WeAreNotThis.”
But other staff members worried the signs were illegal under the new law and brought them to Cooper’s attention.
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Cooper decided to wait to take a stance until she better understood the law. She also wanted to talk to the rest of the staff, more than 80 people. And after being the subject of hate mail and picketing for her political stances in the past, she was cautious about doing so now.
“I don’t have the luxury of making knee-jerk reactions,” Cooper said.
The employees walked out. One took to social media about the incident, sparking a public backlash that Cooper says surprised her.
“I took it a bit for granted that Durham knows where the Guglhupf stands on these topics,” she said. “I would hope and operate under the belief that anybody who comes to the Guglhupf, given that we’ve been here for this long, that they would feel so comfortable at this place.”
Cooper sought to publicly clarify her position Wednesday at a press conference announced by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Guglhupf strongly opposes HB2 as it “opens the door to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and denies them legal protection from prejudice,” she said.
Cooper said she would like to open bathrooms to people of any gender identity, but that the restaurant is required to maintain two multiple-occupancy bathrooms, one for each gender
A spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory emphasized after Wednesday’s press conference that the law’s provision requiring people to use the public bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certficate applies only to government facilities.
“Nothing prohibits a private business owner from having its own bathroom policy,” said Josh Ellis, communications director. “It’s totally up to her.”
A local government expert agrees.
There is nothing prohibiting a private owner of private property from having its own bathroom policy. HB2 does not impact decisions made by private businesses.
Josh Ellis, communications director
“The bill concerns only bathrooms operated by school boards and other state and local government entities,” said Jeff Welty, an associate professor of public law and government writing on the UNC School of Government blog North Carolina Criminal Law. “It doesn’t prevent private businesses from making multiple occupancy bathrooms available by gender identity.”
In a follow-up phone call Thursday, Cooper said even if she wanted to make her two public bathrooms open to all, the state plumbing code prevents her.
The code says for every 75-person occupancy she has to provide a bathroom for each sex, Cooper said. At 94-person occupancy, Guglhupf has two public bathrooms with two stalls each.
“It’s very nice to say it’s up to the private business owners,” she said. “But North Carolina plumbing code makes that impossible.”
Cooper called HB2 a “horrible” law and said the bathroom issue is “a red herring” compared to the law’s much larger impact in limiting the authority of local governments.
Still at the Wednesday press conference, Cooper said Guglhupf would not be checking birth certificates and that it would ultimately be up to customers to choose which bathroom they use. Cooper also said that if a customer was uncomfortable using either one, a staff member could show them to a unisex, single-occupancy employee bathroom.
Signs on the bathroom doors Wednesday read: “While we do not support HB2, we are unable at this time to make our bathrooms unisex due to physical building constraints and laws regarding the volume of our dining room, as well as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. #WeAreNotThis.”
Cooper said she will be revised the signs to add information about the state code
“I’m learning as I move along,” she said. “It really is an ongoing process.”
She also said she respected the staff members’ decision to quit.
“For a lot of folks, choosing their place of employment is almost the only place where they can attempt to have an immediate impact or to be heard,” she said.