Updated 9:38 am 6/10/2021
The Allegheny County plumbing code might not be the sexiest item on the public agenda, but it has had a major impact on bathroom access for trans and non-binary residents. A broad coalition of advocates, politicians, and property owners have been calling on the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to change the plumbing code to better support all-gender restroom access for the last several years. With major cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and even smaller cities like Santa Fe changing their plumbing code to be all-gender restroom friendly, advocates continue to be baffled as to why Pittsburgh officials continue to actively resist the call for change.
One such advocate is Nica Ross, who ran into major structural challenges as a new faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Ross, who is nonbinary, talked about how they had to strategize where they would go to the bathroom based on the different areas in which they taught classes.
They joined the Trans, Nonbinary, and Intersex Alliance (TINA), an advocacy group for trans, intersex, nonbinary, and questioning individuals at CMU, in 2019 to help collectively advocate for the administration to create more all-gender bathrooms. They quickly realized CMU could only do so much because of Allegheny County’s current plumbing code. The Health Department’s Plumbing Code Article XV mandates establishments have a certain number of sex-segregated (men’s and women’s) bathrooms before allowing for all-gender restrooms. Ross found that not only does this treat all-gender options as secondary or optional, but it also is unrealistic for many establishments.
Ross and TINA were not alone in thinking this was an unrealistic and discriminatory code. Members of State Representative Dan Frankel’s office and representatives from CMU joined TINA in a meeting with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) Plumbing Program in October of 2019 to call for change. After nothing came of it for a whole year, the ACHD Plumbing Program held a public comment session on amending the plumbing code in November of 2020 following pressure from advocates.
“People from all over the county wrote in and [the ACHD] only responded to Rep. Dan Frankel’s comment,” Ross explained. They also noted that the ACHD Plumbing Program conveniently didn’t include their response in the meeting’s public memos effectively making it seem like they never even addressed the issue.
Unexpectedly, on April 19 the ACHD proposed minor changes to the code. TINA wrote on its website that the changes were “impractical, difficult to implement, and do not come close to achieving restroom access equity in Allegheny County.” It also noted that the changes were proposed with “an unrelated, unsafe, de-professionalizing and job killing code revision.”
Ross acknowledges that COVID has and should be a top priority for the department, but they also point out that they have been advocating for this since well before the pandemic. Their perception is that the pushback has way more to do with inconveniencing a Democratic “old boys club” that has rarely prioritized issues that trans people face.
So what exactly are the changes TINA is advocating for? The organization wants to see the plumbing code designate all single-stall restrooms as all-gender. This ask seems to have broad support, according to Ross.
“The overall sentiment I have gotten from local government, local community leaders, business owners is all in support of changing these codes to … mandate that single-stall restrooms be designated all-gender,” said Ross. “No one is going to get hurt by that. Just do that and right away you are going to exponentially increase restroom access across the board.”
But it’s not just single-stall restrooms, TINA is also advocating for establishments to have the option for multi-stall all-gender restrooms. Ross noted that in the 2021 International Plumbing Code there are guidelines for how to build these restrooms with enclosed floor-to-ceiling single toilets and urinals. The ACHD’s plumbing code, even with new minor changes, doesn’t reflect the international recommendations.
Ross notes that the ACHD left room for a backdoor of sorts to getting around the antiquated plumbing code. The new code will allow for exceptions to the rules as long as it doesn’t affect health and safety. While this does allow for all-gender facilities to exist, Ross says it is something only a few would be able to understand from reading the confusingly written code.
“I don’t think inclusivity should be solved with backdoors,” stated Ross.
Now, the ACHD Board of Health has opened a 30-day public comment period that goes until June 19th. They are also holding a virtual public hearing on Tuesday, June 22, 2021, at 5:00 PM to take testimony on proposed plumbing code revisions. TINA is calling for Allegheny County residents to submit a public comment and speak at the virtual public hearing to call for the ACHD to make a more meaningful change to the code. They provide a how to guide here.
“Everyone has a voice in this,” Ross says. “[Whether it’s] being a parent of a small child, being a caretaker or having a caretaker; what are the spaces that would open up to people if we had expanded restroom access?”
Updated to clarify the omission of public comments.