The push for gender-neutral washrooms in Canada

For Melina Pelley, a public washroom is not a place of privacy, but of paranoia.

The fifth-year Carleton University student, who identifies as transgender, says she has experienced verbal and physical harassment for using the washroom that corresponds with her gender identity.

“As a trans woman, there’s a fair bit of anxiety about using washrooms. It is pretty stressful,” Pelley said.

Pelley said many people who identify as transgender are intimidated to use public washrooms labelled male or female because their gender identity does not always neatly correspond with the facility in question. She said washrooms labelled by gender exclude people who identify as neither male nor female.

“One of the reasons why we separate the men’s washroom and the women’s washroom is so there’s no mixing and then people feel safe, but at the same time there are some folks who use those washrooms who don’t feel safe,” Pelley said.

A 2013 study done by the Williams Institute, which surveyed transgender people in the Washington, D.C. area, found 68 per cent of the people surveyed were told they were in the wrong facility, asked about their gender, told to leave, or verbally threatened in a public washroom.

Another survey by Trans PULSE in 2014 revealed 57 per cent of transgender Ontarians avoid public washrooms.

Gender-neutral washrooms, which are single-stall, locked facilities accessible to everyone, offer private spaces for people to use the washroom regardless of gender identity.

Pelley said although Carleton has gender-neutral washrooms on campus, they aren’t easy to spot.

Carrie Winans is the public relations officer for Smart Sign, an American company that donates gender-neutral washroom signs to schools and businesses. She said creating a gender-neutral washroom sign was a challenge for the company.

“The first was actually designed by a transgender woman. It features the male pictograph and the female pictograph, and this pictograph that’s kind of half male, half female,” Winans said.

Winans said the company received criticism saying the first sign was not an accurate representation of a transgender person.

“A trans person is not someone who is half man, half woman. They are someone who knows exactly where they are,” she said.

After working with a social justice advocate, Winans said Smart Sign released a new sign, this time featuring a toilet icon and the words, “all-gender.”

“They now say, ‘all-gender’ because there are people who identify with genders even beyond male, female, or somewhere on the transgender spectrum,” she said.

Dan Irving, a transgender man and sexuality studies and human rights professor at Carleton University, said gender-neutral washrooms eliminate the threat and risk of violence to transgender people.

“What you find with gender segregated washrooms is that for those who are non-normatively gendered or they don’t conform, bathrooms are a place of extreme danger.” Irving said.

“Gender-neutral washrooms also create, in a larger way, a tool of education so people can start to say we don’t need to have that segregated space to go to the bathroom.”

Unlike Pelley, Irving said he hasn’t experienced harassment in the washroom. Although he was born female, Irving said he appears male and can use facilities labelled for males only without issue.

Bill C-279, also know as the Gender Identity Bill, seeks to add gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The bill has been stuck in the Senate after passing its second reading in the House of Commons almost two years ago.

“In terms of rights and the official rights recognition, it’s not going to save people in washrooms,” Irving said about the bill.

On Feb. 25, the Senate passed an amendment to the bill. The amendment, made by Conservative Sen. Donald Plett, excludes federal facilities such as crisis facilities, washrooms, changing rooms, and correctional facilities from the legislation.

Irving said he thinks Conservatives are pushing against Bill C-279.

Stephen Hartley, president of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Canada (PFLAG) said the amendment would slow the bill down.

“The core of the issue itself is transphobia. I know that Sen. Plett, who put the amendment in, doesn’t know what he’s talking about or what he’s doing,” Hartley said.

According to the Toronto Star, Sen. Plett said Feb. 4, 2014 during a Senate debate that the bill would allow pedophiles to take advantage of the legislation.

“You have this senator coming out and fear-mongering and throwing gas on an already extremely erroneous sense that trans people are predators in the washrooms and they’re going to ‘get kids’ and all this stuff. But at the same time you’re trying to advocate for gender-neutral washrooms,” Irving said.

Pelley, who came out as transgender in university, said she thinks Canada is at a time of understanding where people can respect gender-neutral washrooms are something that need to happen.

“Even going past gender issues, some folks might just feel more comfortable in a single-stall washroom. And I think it’s important that we try and accommodate that. It should be something that’s incorporated into building plans,” she said.

Pelley said it took her a long time to come out to her family as transgender.

“About three years ago, I — excuse the terrible metaphor — dropped the bomb,” she said.

She said she took a step-by-step process by easing her family into the idea of her identifying as female when, at the time, she identified as male.

“We have some ins and outs and some arguments and such with my family so I was kind of terrified about the reactions coming out to my family,”

Although Pelley said she officially revealed she was transgender to her family three years ago, she said she was sure of her gender identity many years before.

“I was super certain about it back in Grade 6,” she said.

Pelley said her family is still struggling to accept her new identity.

Pelley, Irving, and Hartley agreed it will be a long time before gender-neutral washrooms become common practice in Canada.

“I think it’s going to change but I don’t think it would be a wise thing for the community, I mean the community as a whole, to wait for the bill to come through,” Hartley said.

“It speaks to that logic that is invisible. The need to have two sexes and genders represented, and to keep those categories in place for particular reasons,” Irving said.

“It’s not going to be as easy as just erasing it,” he added.

Hartley said lack of awareness is the one of the biggest hurdles in educating people about gender identity and gender norms. He said he would like to see businesses and facilities be proactive and create gender-neutral washrooms regardless of Bill C-279.

“We shouldn’t really need a trans bill. Everybody is human. Everybody has equal rights,” he said.

Hartley added he didn’t think the political debate surrounding gender-neutral washrooms would be resolved prior to the 2015 federal election.

“The government is there for the betterment of all Canadians. All Canadians. But they forget that part. They forget that word all,” he said.

Like what you read? Give Emma Tranter a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.