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As most of us are probably aware, the conservative movement’s attacks on trans people and trans rights have gotten particularly ugly in recent months. Most prominent in the spotlight has been North Carolina, where Republican governor Pat McCrory recently signed HB2 into law, which, among other things, requires everyone in North Carolina to use gender-segregated bathrooms in public institutions according to the gender appearing on their birth certificate.

The radical law is part of a wider political wave aimed at creating obstacles in the lives of ordinary trans people (among other communities) that has taken hold across parts of the U.S., including the underhanded campaign that last November resulted in the overturning of Houston’s anti-discrimination ordinance HERO as well as the recent passing of a “Religious Freedom” bill in Mississippi that, like HB2, unambiguously codifies discrimination into law.

As a native North Carolinian, it’s difficult to express my disappointment; while the conservative movement has often had influence, I’ve always thought of my home state as having a more complex balance of political forces and ideas. Unfortunately, supposedly moderate Governor McCrory has played into the reactionary forces within his party, likely as part of a cynical re-election ploy.

While it is not yet entirely clear exactly how these kinds of laws will ultimately impact people’s lives in day-to-day circumstances, there are already indications what may be on the horizon. It’s rather obvious that the bathroom aspect of HB2 cannot possibly be enforced in any consistent manner; however there have already been signs that it may enable targeted harassment of trans people by law enforcement and civilians alike.

It should also be kept in mind that trans people, especially trans women, can face harassment and discrimination with regard to bathroom usage even in the absence of such laws. A recent story from neighboring South Carolina illustrates the point in an unfortunate way: at White Knoll High School in Lexington, a young trans girl named Anna is facing expulsion simply for using the ladies washroom.

Anna had been told she could not use the gendered bathrooms of either sex, but instead must use a single bathroom in the nurse’s room. Obviously this places a special burden on her since she must travel further throughout the grounds to use the bathroom than anyone else at the school, which places her at risk of being tardy for classes, for example. Teachers have also asked Anna inappropriate questions about her gender, even in front of other students.

Finally the bathroom issue has come to a head, as Anna is now facing expulsion from her high school for nothing more than harmlessly using the women’s bathroom between classes. What’s more, this comes a mere four weeks before her planned graduation.

It’s very difficult to understand why school officials would ever escalate this issue to the point of kicking a young girl out of high school, and I can’t help but think this is a sad result of the hyper-sensationalizing of trans bodies and trans lives that has been pushed in recent years by so-called ‘radical feminists’ and conservative extremists alike. In any case, Anna’s supporters have raised a petition to push back against her expulsion; please sign the petition in Anna’s defense here.

Meanwhile, it will probably take years before the full fallout of HB2 and similar hate bills is clear. Much of it will likely depend on how it is enforced on the ground; if the history of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” provides any example, it’s very possible that some agencies will choose to implement these laws in the most anti-LGBT manner possible. And although the date of the incident is not clear, a recently widely shared video of a butch cis woman being kicked out of a public bathroom by police illustrates the point that these laws will likely also impact on gender non-conforming cis women, among others.

Note: The following is a repost of my most recent article at Autostraddle.

On October 10, the California-based right-wing law firm Pacific Justice Institute issued a press release on its website titled “Nightmare: Teen Boy Harasses Girls in Their Bathroom, Colo. School Tells Girls They Have No Rights.

Like a page out of the right-wing playbook on trans issues, the press release read, in part:

Attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) sent a strongly-worded letter this afternoon to school officials at Florence High School, warning them against squelching student privacy and speech rights in order to cater to the wishes of a teenage boy who has been entering girls’ bathrooms on campus…

Parents at the school, located near Colorado Springs, became irate when they learned that a teenage boy was entering girls’ bathrooms and, according to some students, even making sexually harassing comments toward girls he was encountering. When the parents confronted school officials, they were stunned to be told the boy’s rights as a self-proclaimed transgender trumped their daughters’ privacy rights. As the controversy grew, some students were threatened by school authorities with being kicked off school athletic teams or charged with hate crimes if they continued to voice concerns. The parents became aware of PJI’s Notice of Reasonable Expectation of Privacy and contacted PJI for help.

Brad Dacus, President of PJI, was quoted as saying:

“We’re not going to stand by and let 99.7% of our students lose their privacy and free speech rights just because .3% of the population are gender-confused. LGBT activists are sacrificing the safety and sanity of our schools to push an extreme political agenda. This battle is no longer confined to California or Colorado; it is spreading to every part of the nation. It is crucial that we act now to prevent a crippling blow to our constitutional freedoms.”

From here, the situation quickly exploded over the next few days as the story began to appear in local news before breaking in several high-profile tabloids and right-wing news sites, including the UK’s Daily Mail.

The problem with all this, of course, is that the story is largely fabricated.   Read the rest of this entry »

Note: This post represents the second part in a two-part series on washroom-related gender issues on the University of Toronto campus. The first part can be found here.

Part two: focus on gender diversity, mobility support and other campus constituencies

In an earlier post I focused on the question of gender parity in washrooms, pointing out that the University of Toronto Office of Space Management (OSM) has an explicit policy to build female and male washrooms to reflect pre-existing gender imbalances on campus. I argued that this cynical policy undermines the University’s own goal of recruiting women into the hard sciences and sets a poor example of gender inclusion for the wider community.

Presently, I will focus on gender diversity, best accommodated through the implementation of gender-neutral single stall washrooms in addition to traditional multi-stall washrooms. This solution dovetails with the needs of other campus community members such as those with special mobility or medical needs as well as parents with young children.

First let us consider the case of trans and intersex people as well as other gender-nonconforming folks, for whom washrooms can often be uncomfortable or unsafe spaces. Traditional gender-segregated washrooms force people into categories, which may be an issue considering that their personal gender identity may not be consistent with what others visually assign them. Hence a simple visit to the washroom may lead to discomfort, harassment, or even violence.

Unfortunately there are numerous examples of such violence, including the well-publicized case of a trans woman who was severely beaten last April by two cisgender women after using the women’s washroom in a Washington D.C. area McDonald’s. These two women and other onlookers proceeded to laugh as the trans woman in question fell into a seizure. However, washroom violence is not unique to trans individuals, as illustrated by the case of a lesbian cisgender woman who was recently attacked by three men outside a pub washroom near York University campus.

Gender neutral single user washroom signage (BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY)

With this in mind, the best approach is to complement traditional gender-segregated washrooms, when possible, with a gender-neutral single-stall washroom. This way gender-nonconforming individuals can decide for themselves where they are most comfortable.

However, the advantages of single-stall washrooms go beyond the needs of trans individuals. Multi-stall washrooms are usually less accessible for people with mobility needs. Single-stall washrooms can provide greater privacy, more space for maneuvering a mobility device and more thorough mobility accommodations than the common multi-stall model, which is to have one larger stall equipped with grab bars. (The single-stall washroom near the back entrance of 563 Spadina provides a good example of more thorough accessibility accommodations).

Other campus members with particular medical needs (for example, those with medical conditions requiring regular injections) may also benefit from the greater privacy afforded by single-stall washrooms.

Additionally, gender-neutral single-stall washrooms can be a great help to parents with young children who may be uncomfortable or have difficulty bringing “opposite sex” children into gender-segregated washrooms.

The present situation on campus for gender-neutral washrooms is somewhat mixed. In theory, the OSM guidelines require that “single user accessible washrooms… be provided near classrooms.” In practice however there are several campus buildings in which this is not the case. Hence it is important to increase awareness of the issue on campus and to emphasize the need for such facilities to the administration, especially when considering important building projects, such as the upcoming expansion of Robarts Library (presently the entire building has a lone publicly accessible single-stall washroom on the first floor). In the meantime, the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office website provides a map where such facilities are presently available.

The Toronto star also recently reported that progress is being made on this issue in the wider Toronto community.

Finally, I would emphasize that many of the problems and anxieties we face in relation to the washroom are unnecessary. A good illustration is provided by the fact that even multi-stall gender-neutral washrooms may be workable. They are more common in Europe but there are a few in Toronto (mostly at clubs). The stalls usually have more careful architecture without cracks at the doorjambs and such, but the fact that girls and boys and everyone in between can pee within a few feet of each other without the world exploding illustrates the point: many of our anxieties around the washroom exist primarily in our minds.

A version of this article appears in U of T’s Varsity paper.

Sec. 1.5 of the "Design Criteria for Classrooms" document from the University of Toronto Office of Space Management.

Note: I am transgender, not 'transgendered.' My trans status didn't fall on me while I was walking through the forest.

Note: This post represents the first part in a two-part series on washroom-related gender issues on the University of Toronto campus. The second part can be found here.

Part one: Redressing gender imbalances on campus

Washrooms can be funny things (in most any sense of the word). Of course, they are an essential element of our human infrastructure; it’s difficult to imagine how we would go about our daily business (pun intended) without them being readily available throughout the day. We mostly take washrooms for granted, including the gendered manner in which they are usually structured: the little “woman” symbol, the little “man” symbol, and of course if we see just one of these two then we’ll expect to see the other somewhere nearby. It’s all very neat, orderly and intuitive— at least at the surface.

However, looking a bit more closely, we might notice sometimes things don’t perfectly fit this— I would argue— simplistic picture. For one, there is the question of gender identity: walking into either gendered washroom compels us to announce, “I am a woman” or “I am a man” although there may be individuals for whom this question is not so simple. This may include trans, intersex or other gender non-conforming people. Further there is the question of gender parity: given this binary idealization of gender, is one gender grouping prioritized over another in a given circumstance? It should be noted that although we are approaching this issue through the lens of gender, further questions naturally arise relating to parenting or supporting people with mobility needs. We address these perspectives, along with the gender identity question, in a separate piece.

For the present, let us address the gender parity issue. I happen to work on the fourth floor of the University of Toronto Chemistry Department. By the elevators on this floor (near my office) there is a men’s washroom on the immediate left and a women’s washroom on the right, a bit further down the hall. However, in my first few months working here I noticed that on about half the floors there is only a men’s with no complimentary women’s washroom. Later I discovered this is actually the result of a specific University policy coming out of the Office of Space Management.

Section 1.5 of a 2009 document entitled Design Criteria for Classrooms explicitly states, “The proportion of male to female fixtures [washrooms] will reflect the proportion of the anticipated users, if known.” In other words, in traditionally female-dominated fields (humanities, social sciences) there will be a greater number of women’s washrooms and in male-dominated fields (such as chemistry) there will be a greater number of men’s washrooms.

In practical terms the demographics in the hard sciences are indeed presently skewed towards the male population. However, I notice that during the semester when the halls are filled with undergraduates, it’s more difficult to notice the disparity. Only during class breaks does the gap become more apparent (i.e., at the graduate and faculty levels).

Let us imagine an undergraduate woman considering a career in math or science. She notices that while her class is mostly gender-balanced, most of her professors are men (and I assure you a few of them will occasionally make sexist remarks). Further, she notices that she and her female colleagues spend more time looking around for a washroom than her male colleagues, with longer waiting periods once she finds it. What message does this convey?

It’s ironic to think we have numerous programs and awards specifically intended to invite women into the sciences in order to redress the gender imbalance. Yet this seems discordant with the fact that male dominance is literally etched into the structure of the building. For this reason, I strongly believe that these design standards should be removed and eventually gender balance should be obtained in all departments. Note that other campuses are already taking steps in this direction.

I believe that our University should act as a model for the wider Toronto community. If our campus is meant to show the way forward, why do we build it in opposition to our own ideals? My essential belief is that we should build the University that we imagine, not simply rebuild the one we found.

A version of this article appears in U of T’s Varsity paper.

Sec. 1.5 of the "Design Criteria for Classrooms" document from the University of Toronto Office of Space Management


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