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Raleigh mall changes family bathroom to all-gender facility after author denied access

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When Devin Pearson pushed the buzzer to use a family restroom at Crabtree Valley Mall this summer, they didn’t think they’d have to wait nearly half an hour, only to end up leaving the mall without being able to use the bathroom.

Pearson, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, said a routine trip to the mall in late August left them feeling “personally humiliated” when they were repeatedly refused access to a vacant, single-occupancy family restroom.

Mall representatives apologized to Pearson, assuring them days later that the private bathrooms would be made available to anyone who needed them.

But Pearson, determined to see a more inclusive policy put into effect, continued to push for a permanent solution.

This fall, the mall converted its family restrooms to “all gender” restrooms, replacing signs and taking down security cameras and buzzers.

Pearson told The News & Observer the situation was unfortunate but that they were glad the mall listened to their feedback and made their restrooms more accessible. They wanted to share their experience to raise awareness about the need for gender-neutral bathrooms in malls, hotels and other public places.

“I think we can definitely be more mindful of those needs, and hopefully this can be a conversation that can start getting those gears going. I sure hope so,” Pearson said.

Mall management and other mall representatives did not respond to numerous messages from The News & Observer seeking comments for this story.

Being denied access to the bathroom

Pearson, an author of children’s books, moved to the Triangle over the summer from Central Virginia. They were visiting the mall on the afternoon of Aug. 26 to explore the possibility of promoting their new book, “The Awakening of Princess Treshawn,” a story about a boy with dreams of becoming a princess and embracing his gender identity.

Pearson went to a family restroom on the mall’s lower level and found a buzzer and a camera. A sign by the bathroom advised it was “especially designed for the comfort of adults with young children.” Pearson pressed the buzzer and waited to hear a response, before pressing it a few more times.

A person answered after a few minutes and recommended using a different restroom. Pearson was told the family restroom was only available to someone accompanying a child.

“I did not want to reveal my gender identity, I didn’t feel that was necessary, but as the conversation continued, it was very clear that I was not going to be permitted to use the restroom,” Pearson said in an interview with The News & Observer in November.

Reluctantly, Pearson told the person over the speaker that they are non-binary. The person replied that Pearson would have to choose between the men’s and women’s restrooms.

“I pressed forward and said, ‘Well, I feel uncomfortable choosing one way or the other,’ and I explained that to them, and the circumstance, and was still told that no, I was still not allowed to use the restroom,” Pearson recalled.

Two other mall representatives spoke to Pearson, repeating the rules about that bathroom’s access. About 20 minutes passed before Pearson was able to speak with the mall’s general manager, Debora Overholt.

Pearson said Overholt apologized to them and said their experience was the result of a lack of training. Overholt said such an incident wouldn’t happen again, but Pearson said Overholt’s words felt “empty.” It wasn’t clear what steps the mall would take to prevent someone from being refused access to a restroom in the future, Pearson said.

Pearson followed up by email with Overholt and other Crabtree Valley representatives the next morning.

“I felt personally humiliated by the experience. Like all customers, I want to feel comfortable using the restroom,” Pearson wrote in an email to them on Aug. 27. “As a member of the transgender community, it is always my hope to find inclusive spaces to work and collaborate. Where all customers feel welcome.”

In an email Pearson shared with The N&O, Overholt responded to them on Aug. 31, and apologized again for “the unacceptable lack of access to the family restroom” and sought to assure Pearson that the family restroom would be made available to anyone who needed to use it.

Overholt said management wanted to ensure “our guests feel comfortable and safe while shopping at Crabtree,” and that Pearson’s feedback had prompted the mall to better train staff so that the family restroom would be accessible to anyone.

The mall makes a change

Pearson returned to Crabtree Valley Mall a few days after the incident and noticed the security camera and buzzer outside the bathroom had been disconnected. In early November, Pearson saw the “family restroom” sign had been replaced with a sign that read “all gender restroom.” The sign outside another family restroom by the food court had been replaced as well.

Mall management did not respond to The N&O’s messages to clarify when the restroom signs were changed.

Other Triangle shopping centers report they have gender-neutral restrooms, though they are not labeled that way.

The Streets at Southpoint in Durham has two family restrooms, which are available for anyone to use, said Lindsay Kahn, a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, the mall’s owner.

Raleigh’s Triangle Town Center has multiple family restrooms, but they are also available to anyone who needs to use them, according to Rachel Dooley, the mall’s marketing manager. The bathrooms don’t have “all gender” signs, but aren’t restricted to people with young children, Dooley said.

Pearson said they hope those who design public spaces or facilities consider the importance of offering a private, single-occupancy restroom that doesn’t necessarily have to be used only by non-binary people. Other people could stand to benefit from more inclusive bathrooms too.

“I try to think beyond myself, and think what if this was an elderly person who needed to use the restroom,” Pearson said. “Would they be included in the same policy, would they be permitted to use the restroom? I would hope so, but by the given policy, the answer would have to be no.”

HB2 and the fight over public bathrooms

The push for more all-gender or gender-neutral bathrooms in public settings has been going on for years.

Access to public restrooms for LGBTQ people was a major political issue across the country in 2016, particularly in North Carolina. Lawmakers passed and then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law, which required transgender people in schools and government buildings to use public restrooms matching the gender on their birth certificate.

The law drew robust opposition, including from cities that passed their own anti-discrimination ordinances allowing transgender people to use public restrooms of the gender with which they identify.

Some businesses responded to the law by trying to make their restrooms more inclusive. The 21c Museum Hotel in Durham installed gender-neutral signs outside its single-occupancy bathrooms showing both the male and female symbols. The bottom of the signs read “We Don’t Care.”

HB2 was partially repealed in March 2017.

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