Breaking down gender divisions

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Going to the washroom in a comfortable and safe environment should be a right not a privilege. However, for those who do not necessarily fit into gender binary norms, this is not always the case.

For many transgender or intersex individuals, using the washroom can potentially lead to discrimination or harassment.  Having more gender-neutral washrooms, although controversial, is a potential solution to this problem – one which is being explored on university campuses across Canada.

Marie Little, chair of the Trans Alliance Society, an organization that operates in British Columbia, discussed the potential danger that trans individuals face when using the washroom.

“Generally the worst you can expect in the women’s is possibly some insults, or a call to security, but there have been cases where people have gone to the male washroom and got beaten up,” Little explained.

Little described how having three washrooms; male, female and gender-neutral can be a good option to combat this harassment at universities, although it is an extra expense.
Many universities have been making the move and implementing gender-neutral washrooms.

The University of Regina, McGill University, Dalhousie Univerity and Western University have all implemented gender-neutral bathrooms. Western currently has sixty gender-neutral washrooms, all of which are single occupant and marked by a sign that simply reads “washroom.”

Western has received positive feedback since implementing these washrooms.

“The trans folks I have talked to feel a little more comfortable that they at least have the option,” said Steff Armstrong, the Pride Western co-coordinator.

Western’s washrooms are, however, single-stall, as multi-stall gender-neutral washrooms are more difficult to implement.

“Right now if you go into a single-stall gender-neutral washroom you’re labeling and differentiating yourself,” Armstrong explained. She hopes that eventually schools will make the switch to multi-stall gender-neutral facilities.

Little also took this into consideration, as many trans individuals do not want to be labeled as “other” and using these washrooms may have the effect of differentiating trans people from their peers. She has found that the trans community is divided on the issue.

“The main objection from the trans community is from those who have made the transition and don’t want to be segregated anymore,” Little explained.

Although she believes that there is definite need for gender-neutral washrooms for trans individuals who are in transition, she also asserted the importance of considering that some transgender people who have made a full transition would prefer to use a gender-specified washroom.

“I personally didn’t feel the need for them,” recalled Little. “When I first started presenting as female I went straight to the women’s and never had any problems.”

She acknowledged, however, that others have experienced harassment in that situation.

Gender-neutral washrooms can serve a variety of needs, however, and are not strictly limited to trangender individuals.

“It’s no longer just for trans people or people who don’t feel comfortable in binary gender washrooms. It’s for women who breastfeed, if you want a little more privacy or if you have to wash yourself before prayers,” Armstrong explained.

Bisma Bhatti, a student at Wilfrid Laurier University, feels positively about the single-stall gender-neutral washrooms. “You can have both, male and female and gender-neutral. I’m going to go to whatever one’s more convenient. If that’s a gender-neutral one I’m going to go to that,” Bhatti said.

Bhatti admitted that while she’s in support of single-stall implementation, she feels that the multi-stalls are more controversial due to both safety and religious concerns.

“When I go into the bathroom, and I’m fixing my Hijab or taking it off to fix my hair, in that kind of situation I can’t have guys coming into the bathroom,” Bhatti explained.

Although there is no simple solution to this issue, Armstrong observed that a transition period may help with the adjustment to multi-stall bathrooms.

“Society moves slowly. We can start off with single-stalls and go to multi-stalls. It would definitely create a lot of controversy and I don’t think society as a whole is ready for that yet,” explained Armstrong.

“It really needs to be about society growing as a place where we don’t need to divide and conquer, or harass and be violent towards anyone else. It’s about a bigger societal shift.”

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