Northwestern Press

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Editor's view

Thursday, July 4, 2013 by JOHANNA S. BILLINGS in Opinion

Customer beware: You don't know who you will find in the store dressing room

I was trying on clothes at a local department store recently when I heard a male voice.

Putting my own clothing back on, I opened the stall door to find a young couple discussing clothing the woman was trying on. They were not just near the dressing room. They were well inside it.

"This is a woman's dressing room," I said. "You need to leave."

The man didn't argue but his girlfriend got angry and, when I refused to back down, she called me "crazy" and stormed out saying, "I guess I'll have to go change in the men's room."

I told the store manager and, although she apologized, she didn't seem overly concerned. Call me crazy but I expected a little bit of outrage and I was stunned when I didn't get it.

I emailed the store's online customer service department and received a reply which reads, in part, "Currently, we have designated areas that our customers may use to try on clothing items.

"While our fitting rooms are not gender specific, it is our hope that every customer is able to use the fitting room that is most comfortable for them.

"If you have specific fitting room accommodation needs, I would urge you to speak directly to a member of the store's management team before your visit, to ensure that we are able to properly accommodate your needs."


Dressing rooms are nongender specific? I had never heard of such a thing. To make matters worse, the store was acting as if my expectation of a minimal amount of privacy in the fitting rooms amounts to some kind of handicap.

Researching the issue further, I found stores are trending toward gender-neutral dressing rooms in an attempt to accommodate transgendered individuals.

I don't know if the store policy is intended to accommodate transgendered people. I brought it up several times during my correspondence with store officials but all the store representatives ignored and sidestepped the issue.

I didn't call a company spokesperson precisely because I wanted to show how the store treats the average customer, without giving anyone the opportunity to make excuses.

I did tell them I was a newspaper editor who would be writing an editorial about the issue. They ignored that, too.

However, lots of blogs, articles and information can be found documenting the trend toward nongender specific dressing rooms.

Some stores have received praise from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for removing gender designations from dressing rooms. In one case, the change was prompted by a Miami woman trying on men's clothing who was mistaken for a man.

"I want to commend [the store] for offering gender-neutral dressing rooms as this will be much appreciated by the transgender community as well as others who feel their gender may be in question," says a 2011 article on the South Florida Gay News website.

I also found an article indicating another department store fired an employee for not allowing a transgendered person with male genitalia to try on clothes in a women's dressing room.

LGBT blogger dapperQ recommends several stores because they have gender-neutral dressing rooms.

On the other hand, some local department stores sell both men's and women's clothing and have clearly marked gender-specific dressing rooms. Those are the places where I prefer to shop.

Let me make it perfectly clear I have no problem with accommodating transgendered individuals.

But, allowing men and women access to the same dressing rooms makes female customers vulnerable to Peeping Toms and sexual predators.

This is especially true for minors. Store dressing room policies should protect vulnerable young girls and teens, not create an environment where it is easier for predators to victimize them.

A March 4, 2012, post in the blog Crysti's Transgender Condo inadvertently proves my point.

The blog entry describes the difficulty encountered by a person who was born male but is becoming female. She writes, "Because I have been on hormone replacement therapy, I have developed breasts. Because I have breasts and am a transgendered female, I would not feel safe or comfortable knowing that I could be seen by a man using the men's dressing room."

Although I have no question about my gender, I also have breasts and do not feel safe or comfortable knowing I can be seen by a man in a store dressing room.

A good example of a reasonable compromise can be found at the Maine welcome center, located just across the border from New Hampshire.

It has restrooms marked "men" and "women." In addition to these two large rooms, each filled with stalls and sinks, is a "family" restroom. The latter is a single, wheelchair-accessible room with a single toilet and sink as well as a diaper changing station.

It has a real door and four solid walls that run floor to ceiling – not rickety stalls with doors that don't close without gaps, like you find in some store dressing rooms.

My husband, Sean, and I have used the Maine welcome center's family restroom to brush our teeth and wash up on our way to Acadia National Park six hours north.

It would work equally well for people wanting to change clothes, parents who want to keep their small children close and people, including the transgendered, who just want a little extra privacy.

Estimates on the number of transgendered individuals varies but I have not found any sources estimating their numbers at more than 5 percent of the population. In the quest to accommodate those 5 percent, let's not forget the rights of the other 95 percent.

Stores exist to sell items to customers. They need to respect the dignity and privacy of those in the 95 percent as well as those who fall into the 5 percent.

Any other way is simply not fair.

Johanna S. Billings


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