Debate becomes contentious as Republican senator says it will lead to violence
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois General Assembly has passed a bill that would allow businesses and public institutions to provide multi-occupant all-gender bathrooms if they choose to do so.
House Bill 1286 would change current state law, under which single-occupancy bathrooms are automatically designated for all genders, but multi-occupancy bathrooms must be designated as male or female. It needs only a signature from Gov. JB Pritzker to become law.
Justin Sia, a Chicago attorney, testified in committee this week that he came up with the idea for the bill while in law school at Loyola University. He described it as “a pro-family, pro-business and pro-safety bill that permits, not mandates, public and private entities to install gender inclusive, multi-stall restrooms.”
Sia said he’d heard from transgender and gender nonbinary individuals who were “insulted and even attacked in male or female restrooms simply for who they are or for how they look.” But he said he also heard from caregivers for adults of a different gender and others who would benefit from gender-inclusive restrooms.
“We also learned about parents and guardians with young children of a different gender who must decide whether to leave their children unattended in public restrooms, or to enter a restroom that doesn’t match their gender,” he said.
In its original form, HB 1286 would have required that each toilet stall in an all-gender bathroom be separated by dividers and have a functioning lock mechanism on the door. Urinals, if present, also would have to be separated by partitions.
But the Senate amended the bill to require that all-gender bathrooms have “floor-to-ceiling” toilet stalls with workable locks and that urinals not be allowed.
“We took into consideration the concerns of several members who voiced that concern in terms of people who walk into a restroom and might be offended by a urinal,” bill sponsor Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) said during committee. “So what we were trying to do is to make sure that we address the concerns. And again, a urinal is just as good as a toilet.”
“Are they going to be offended if I leave the toilet seat up?” asked Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Andalusia) in that committee.
“I mean, I might be offended,” Villanueva replied.
“I’ve raised four boys and it’s going to be messy,” said Sen. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy) prompting laughter from many in the room, including Villanueva. “I see it as a sanitary issue.”
But when the bill reached the Senate floor on Thursday, the tone of the debate became harsher and more bitter. There, Anderson said the bill would lead to violence.
He spoke about taking his 10-year-old daughter out in public and how he handles a situation when she needs to use a restroom. He tells her to go inside and check to see if anyone else is in the room. If there is, he says he waits for her outside.
“If somebody goes in there and it’s a woman, fine,” he said. “Under this, I can’t see with the floor-to-ceiling things. She won’t be able to see who’s in there. I won’t be able to see who’s in there. I’m telling you right now, if a guy walks in there, I’m gonna beat the living piss out of him.”
That prompted shouts of support from other Republicans. But later in the debate, Sen. Mike Simmons (D-Chicago) said the comment should be stricken from the record, “because I wouldn’t want a single person in this state to read that record and think that anybody here would come after them if they would do something so mundane as to use the bathroom, a simple call of nature.”
Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) also suggested passage of the bill would lead to violence. He argued that most sexual assaults in bars occur in bathrooms. Rose also argued that, beyond the issue of sexual assaults, the measure isn’t needed.
“I’ve talked to my wife about this,” he said. “Why on earth would any lady want a dude in their bathroom?”
Meanwhile, Sen. Cristina Castro (D-Elgin) accused Republicans of using “dog-whistle” language – coded or suggestive language to draw support from a particular group – and Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester) said the opponents “have a problem with the LGBTQ community.”
The measure passed the Senate on a vote of 35-20, sending it back to the House which approved it on a vote of 63-41. It will next be sent to the governor for consideration.
The debate in the House lacked much of the vitriol that characterized the Senate discussion, although House Republicans raised many of the same concerns as their Senate colleagues.
“I hate to say it because it doesn’t speak well of my gender,” said Rep. Dan Ugaste (R-Geneva). “But since the dawn of time, young men and men in general have done awful and horrendous things to young women and women, and allowing them to follow them into a washroom when we know that it’s led to bad consequences in other areas of the country already – this is not a good idea.”
But Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-Chicago) said he would actually feel safer sending his 13-year-old daughter into a restroom that has floor-to-ceiling stalls.
“You know, instead of someone reaching over someone trying to talk to her, even a woman or a man, who knows?” he said. “Even my son when he goes into a washroom.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) reiterated in floor debate that businesses and schools can determine how they want to designate their restrooms.
“They can stick with traditional men’s and women’s, no one has to change anything,” she said. “Or they can go with solely gender neutral.”
She also noted that the measure allows gender-neutral bathrooms to count toward restroom ratio requirements under existing state law.
“So I’ve actually had a couple of superintendents in rural areas that are looking to redesign their bathroom configuration and actually want more of those … single-stall restrooms,” she said. “And they appreciated that this bill fixes that issue with how those count.”
(Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the bill’s House passage. Capitol News Illinois’ Jerry Nowicki contributed to the story’s update.)
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.