Politics & Government

Transgender college student asks Wichita City Council to change bathroom law

Transgender student seeks change in Wichita bathroom law

Thomas Vitkus, a Friends University student and transgender male, asks the Wichita City Council to rewrite a city ordinance that makes it a crime for him to use the men's restroom. (Dion Lefler/The Wichita Eagle/May 17, 2016)
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Thomas Vitkus, a Friends University student and transgender male, asks the Wichita City Council to rewrite a city ordinance that makes it a crime for him to use the men's restroom. (Dion Lefler/The Wichita Eagle/May 17, 2016)

Saying he fears getting a criminal record or getting assaulted, a transgender male college student pleaded with the Wichita City Council on Tuesday to change its ordinance that requires people to use public restrooms matching their biological sex.

Thomas Vitkus, a Friends University student who was born female and transitioned to male about 1 1/2 years ago, said he had regularly used men’s restrooms without any incident until recently, when a transgender friend was “actually chased down” by an off-duty police officer.

Although he looks male, “I’ve been using the women’s restroom for about a week now,” Vitkus said.

He said that has brought some “strange looks” from the women in the restrooms and men waiting for them outside. But he said he doesn’t dare risk arrest and a criminal record for using the men’s room.

City ordinance 5.7.010, passed in August 1990, states that when a restroom is identified as being for the use of one sex only, it’s a misdemeanor for a person of the opposite sex older than 10 to go inside. The only exceptions listed are for cleaning, repairs or a health or safety emergency.

Vitkus said he called City Hall for clarification and was told he could use a men’s room only if his gender was changed surgically, which he hasn’t done.

He said he was also told the ordinance is generally enforced on complaints, which he said was particularly chilling for him because he knows people who disapprove of his transgender status and would report him out of spite.

“My option and the option of every transgender person in Wichita is either break the law, commit a misdemeanor and risk fines or jail time, or follow the law and still be reported for using the wrong restroom, and face violence while we’re in there,” Vitkus said. “In Kansas, trans-panic is a legitimate excuse for someone to assault a transgender person.”

Thomas Vitkus, a Friends University student and transgender male, asks the Wichita City Council to rewrite a city ordinance that makes it a crime for him to use the men's restroom. (Dion Lefler/The Wichita Eagle/May 17, 2016)

Vitkus said bathroom laws excluding transgender people don’t do anything to protect women from sexual predators, usually the primary argument for passing such laws.

With the closed stalls in women’s restrooms, the only way to observe a woman or girl using the toilet is to look through the crack around the door or look underneath the stall, which is already illegal no matter who does it.

But because of misplaced concerns, transgender individuals “are being forced to use restrooms that out our status and force us into a very vulnerable position,” Vitkus said. “All of us are shaken, all of us are scared, and all we want to do is use the bathroom.”

No council members had questions for Vitkus. Council member Lavonta Williams thanked him for bringing his concerns to the council.

After the meeting, it was unclear whether Vitkus’ plea would get a hearing from the council.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he would have preferred that Vitkus come to him directly before taking his issue to the public forum of the council meeting.

“My door’s always wide open for someone who has concerns about policy,” he said.

Longwell favors taking a wait-and-see approach on the issue of restrooms.

“That’s an issue that’s being discussed at both the national and state levels,” he said. “I’m not prepared to address that issue until I understand where the state and nation are going with it.”

Council member James Clendenin, however, said it’s a “discussion the council is going to have to have, based on how many people on both sides of the issue have expressed concerns.”

“I know there are a lot of emotions on both sides of this issue,” he said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

The law

Here’s what Wichita Municipal Code: Title 5 – Public Safety and Morals says.

Sec. 5.70.010. Public restrooms – Unlawful conduct – Penalty. Whenever a public restroom is clearly identified as being for the use of one sex only, and is in a building or facility open to the public, it is unlawful for any person of the opposite sex who is above the age of ten years to enter or remain within such restroom. Anyone violating this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor. (Ord. No. 41-122 1)

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