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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 »

Here’s what it comes down to: telling a six-year old transgender girl that as she grows up she would would naturally make other girls uncomfortable (or that she would even represent a “threat“) because of her genitalia is actually somewhat comparable to telling a nine-year old cisgender girl that she is a “c*nt.”

In the latter case, society is attempting to teach a young woman to believe, “you are inherently to be devalued as a human being because of your genitalia, and your body has only sexual value. We have set your lot in life before you, and you are always to be victimized.”

Meanwhile, in the former case a young woman is also cruelly being taught, “You are inherently an aggressor because of your genitalia. Because of your body configuration itself, you can’t help yourself but subjugate someone or make them feel uncomfortable.”

One is teaching patriarchy from a victim-coercive perspective, the other teaches patriarchy from an oppressor-coercive perspective. They are two sides of the same coin, a misogynistic narrative that ultimately teaches us to reduce human beings to their body parts one way or the other.

See here for another compelling perspective from a different angle.

Update: See here for another great perspective that also focuses on the implicit sexualizing of children in the arguments against forcing this young woman out of the girl’s bathroom.


Follow-up comment: I should have made acknowledgment in my comments above that there were very apparent racialized dynamics involved in how Hollywood and the media interacted with the nine-year old girl mentioned above at the Oscars.  It is difficult to imagine that such a horrific comment would ever be made about a nine-year old white girl, and I have no doubt that racism played a role, even if race was not explicitly mentioned in the Onion’s tweet itself.  (The tweet was almost certainly made in the context of or in response to the racialized interactions that others were already having with this young lady in the media).

Thanks to those who have pointed this oversight out to me (in the comments section below and elsewhere), as I should have included a comment to this effect from the beginning.

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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