For the first time in history, the White House has designated a gender-neutral restroom for visitors and staffers—the latest in a series of steps the administration has taken to protect the rights of members of the LGBT community.
The gender-neutral restroom is located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building which is near the White House and home to many staff offices and meetings.
The restroom is also a symbol of the administration's efforts to include LGBT issues and concerns as part of a broader national conversation on tolerance. On Wednesday, an executive order went into effect prohibiting companies that contract with the federal government from discriminating against transgender and gay employees.
“The White House allows staff and guests to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity, which is in keeping with the administration’s existing legal guidance on this issue,” White House spokesman Jeff Tiller told NBC News.
Obama is the first president to endorse same-sex marriage and he addressed the struggles of those in the gay community in his speech last month in Selma, Alabama at the 50th anniversary of the one of the most important civil rights movements. During the speech, Obama drew comparisons to past gay rights demonstrations, such as the Stonewall riots of 1969 and demonstrations in San Francisco after the 1978 assassination of city supervisor Harvey Milk.
“We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge,” Obama said last month. “What it means to love America” is to invoke the spirit of change. The president said gay Americans “came through those doors” opened by civil rights activists a half-century ago.
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Obama used the word “transgender" in his 2015 State of the Union, the first time a president used that term in such a speech. On the policy level, the Obama administration is also pushing for LGBT rights, and announced last year that Medicare would cover gender reassignment surgery.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic touting Wednesday's executive order taking effect as an “important step” which will “effectively prevent any company that does business with the government from firing an employee based on who they are or who they love.”
“The president is determined to lead by example,” Jarrett wrote, “he has hired more openly LGBT Americans to serve in his administration than any other in history. And we have closely examined our internal policies on everything from benefits, to restroom access, to how we invite people to events, to ensure that everyone who enters this building feels safe and fully respected.”
These actions come as a number of state legislatures have considered opposing laws restricting which public restrooms transgender Americans are able to use.
Some lawmakers back those laws as a way to prevent sexual predators.
In Florida, a “Single Sex Public Facilities” bill in the Republican-dominated House would prohibit a transsexual individual “knowingly and willfully” entering a single-sex bathroom of the other sex.
And in Kentucky, the largely-Republican Senate passed a comparable bill that applies to public school restrooms. Republican Texas legislators have proposed a bill that would hold transgender individuals accountable for any “mental anguish” if they entered a restricted restroom.
Advocates in the transgender community strongly oppose such legislation, calling these laws discriminatory and applaud the White House for setting an example of openness. Implementing gender-neutral bathroom facilities in workplaces and public buildings has been a priority for transgender rights advocates.
“It is heartening to see that, even if legislators in some states are attacking the dignity and humanity of transgender and gender non-conforming people,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, “at least the White House is still moving in the direction of dignity and common sense.”
— Stacey Klein