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All-Gender Washrooms: A Trans* Issue and Beyond

Content warning: Transphobia

None of the authors of this post are transgender or gender-variant. For that reason, we are cognizant of the privilege we have to advocate for transgender rights as allies who do not face the repercussions that transgender, or gender-variant people continue to face today. Many transgender and gender-variant people have advocated for revisions to the structure of bathrooms, and for that reason, we write this op-ed in solidarity.  We also recognize that all of us are settler students on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Prior to colonialism, indigenous conceptualizations about gender and sexuality were thought of differently. The existence of two-spirit people, which offered a different understanding about gender and sexuality from contemporary Western ideas, makes our discussion about transphobia a reconciliation issue, too.  

Do we have separate male and female washrooms at home? While this might seem like a redundant question to cisgender people, or those who have a gender identity that corresponds with their sex assigned at birth, the topic of gendered washrooms is a highly pertinent matter to trans* and gender non-binary people. Most individuals take using public washrooms for granted on a daily basis. However, for many trans* individuals, using gender bathrooms can be a daunting experience when they are interpreted as being in the ‘wrong washroom’. In 2011, the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust conducted a study that found school washrooms were an unsafe environment for 79% of transgender students.  Moreover, the debate surrounding transgender and gender non-binary individuals using washrooms is not just confined to schools; rather, it is a highly contested focal point of public policy.

The debate surrounding transgender people and washrooms made headlines on March 8th, 2017 when the Texas Senate passed a bill criminalizing transgender people for using washrooms that do not correspond to the biological sex on their birth certificate. Republican Senator Lois Kolkhorst, a key proponent of the bill, stated that this policy is not about transgender people but about “deterring sexual predators”. However, she simultaneously states that “the god I believe in . . . said there was man and woman,” which seems to interfere with her support of gender-neutral washrooms. Before we comment further, let us note that one of the authors of this text is a self-identified Christian; the purpose of this text is not to discuss the origin of gender fluidity, though this is a worthy topic of conversation. Instead, we are exposing the disconnect between her arguments. Is this bill about sexual predators or about the origin of sexuality according to religious texts? We argue that religion should hold no qualms with meeting the needs of others through single stall all-gender washrooms, whereas sexual harassment – an issue of real concern – can occur in any venue at any time.

In fact, we would argue that religion invites its adherents to welcome all people at all times, whenever possible. And, since we all have gender neutral washrooms in our homes, why don’t we have them in public washrooms? That being said, we raise the following questions and, in response, make policy recommendations:

First, is criminalizing transgender people for using the washroom based on the ‘privacy and protection of people’ an excuse to discriminate? To address such a concern, we feel the need to emphasize there is no evidence or empirically sound research that suggests transgender people are disproportionately sexual predators. In fact, similar rhetoric was employed against gay men when homosexuality was publicly stigmatized. (See the infamous ‘psychologist’ Dr. Paul Cameron who spread such nonsense.) Our concern is that this stereotypical logic fails to acknowledge that transgender people are in fact more likely to face harassment and violence in washrooms than cisgender individuals. To demonstrate this, survey data from the United States found that 70% of transgender people have faced harassment in public washrooms, while a similar 2013 American study on 6450 transgender and gender non-conforming respondents, the largest study presently conducted on transgender discrimination, found that 78% of transgender people experienced harassment, 35% experienced physical assault, and 12% have been sexually assaulted.  The study further locates washrooms as a prevalent environment in which these events occurred.  

These alarming statistics demonstrate the urgency of addressing the safety of transgender individuals at an institutional level, which can be solved, in part, through the consistent and intentional implementation of all-gender washrooms. When did washrooms begin to be institutionally segregated by sex in the public, one may ask? After all, could all-gender washrooms be more than just a trans* issue?

The washrooms that many cisgender people take for granted, ourselves included, are in fact the remains of an 1887 Massachusetts law that later expanded across other states requiring public washrooms to be segregated between men and women.  One might assume that the creation of these washrooms was ‘logically’ about the biological difference between cisgender men and women, but this was not the case. According to Professor Terry Kogan, who teaches law at the University of Utah, as women were entering the workforce, stereotypes about women being ‘weaker’ and more ‘fragile’ led to the development of multiple gender-segregated spaces including separate reading rooms for women in public libraries, separate seating areas in train cars (towards the back so their ‘fragile’ bodies would not be damaged in the case of an accident), and of course, bathrooms. So as views around women have shifted, and we no longer encounter libraries or trains separate for women, why are bathrooms still segregated?

Before we begin to make policy recommendations, it is essential to acknowledge the arguments for keeping washrooms separate between men and women:

  1. Male sexual predators lurking in washrooms
  2. The importance of privacy
  3. The costs to tax-payers of changing to all-gender washrooms

For the first line of reasoning to be valid, there must be evidence that male sexual predators ‘disguise’ themselves as women. A lack thereof makes the first point problematic.  That being said, articles like “5 Times ‘Transgender’ Men Abused Women and Children In Bathrooms” suggest cisgender heterosexual men have used all-gender washroom policies on a handful of occasions for harassing and spying on women. By prohibiting transgender people from using the washroom under the fear of permitting sexual predators ‘disguised as women’, laws like the one recently passed in Texas do nothing to solve the issue of misogyny and abuse on an institutional level. Rather, this should be addressed through education on masculinity, and by imposing penalties on those who harass or spy in washrooms instead of placing the burden of the problem on transgender individuals.

The second critique of all-gender washrooms is that they violate privacy, arguing that all-gender washrooms eliminate the privacy between men and women if they may freely intermingle in a shared space. Our solution to this concern are single-stalled toilets or urinals with locked doors, which guarantee privacy for all those who wish to use them. The only shared space would be sinks.

Finally, the third criticism of all-gender washrooms, that of costing public tax-payers money, is an argument that could equally have been made towards the rights of people with disabilities requiring accessible washrooms. Would someone argue that building wheelchair ramps, accessible sidewalks, or the installation of braille in elevators are a ‘waste’ of public tax-payers’ money? We think not. See this article from a transgender man who also uses a wheelchair.

Despite these three common arguments against all-gender washrooms, policy changes towards transgender rights, including washrooms, have already unfolded on a municipal, provincial, and currently, federal, level. We support these policies, while we also believe that institutions must ensure that the needs of all individuals are met – including transgender individuals.

In 2014, the Vancouver School Board amended their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities policy to protect transgender students by providing access to the washroom and change room that corresponds with their gender identity. The most important amendments to the policy included having students addressed by preferred name and pronoun, alongside having at least one all-gender washroom at all Vancouver schools and worksites. Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments to support the policy was made by Fiona Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant mother who defended her trans son’s right to safely use washrooms:

For a long time, my child had very dry lips, and I didn’t know why…He would not drink any water at school to avoid using the washrooms….I strongly believe in the urgency in passing this policy. I…believe these policies will provide a safer learning environment for my child and other kids.

As Chen argues, guaranteeing trans* students with a safe place to use washrooms is not merely about respect for trans* rights, but also a health concern if her son refused to drink water out of fear from harassment in washrooms.

On a similar note, in July of 2016, updates to British Columbia’s Human Rights Code also entrenched transgender human rights by adding “gender identity or expression” to the code. Currently, Bill C-16, which would add “gender identity and gender expression” to the federal human rights code, is being considered.

Importantly, as of March 17, 2017, Vancouver’s City Hall changed the signage of their washrooms to indicate an all-gender washroom:

“Everyone has the right to safe and inclusive washroom facilities. This change is another step forward towards ensuring equality and inclusion for all,” says City Manager Sadhu Johnston. “This updated signage aims to help trans*, gender variant and two-spirit individuals feel safer accessing the washroom facility they most identify with.”

This move by Vancouver’s City Hall is a component of a more expansive policy passed by City Council in July 2016 aimed at expanding all-gender washrooms across the city.

Now, how are all-gender washrooms relevant to UBC? We propose that UBC should consider this matter with increasing attention: all buildings should have at least one single-stalled all-gender washroom. In the long-term goal, we propose that UBC should reconfigure gender-segregated washrooms into all-gender washrooms. We understand that this recommendation includes logistical, economic, and architectural discussion. However, this does not diminish the importance of the goal for the student community – both trans* and cisgender students.

Last December, UBC amended their Discrimination and Harassment policy to explicitly reference “gender identity” and “gender expression” under the interpretation of discrimination based on “sex”. This slight, but crucial, change to UBC’s policy signifies a growing interest to accommodate the needs of trans* people. According to CJ Rowe, the former Director of UBC Access and Diversity, “some of the challenges faced by transgender individuals…include difficulties in changing personal information on the UBC Service Centre, using washrooms safely, and using changing rooms in the gym.”

Rowe’s comments are convincing to the argument that UBC should take the responsibility to protect trans* rights. As some readers may be familiar with, on November 19, 2016, UBC’s Dr. Mary Bryson, Senior Associate Dean of Administration, Faculty Affairs & Innovation and Professor, Department of Language and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education, debated Dr. Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, over whether or not  “gender identity and gender expression” should be added to the federal Canadian human rights code. The hateful transphobic backlash Dr. Bryson received as a gender non-binary individual who uses the pronoun “they”, signifies the need for protecting trans* rights. Having all-gender washrooms is only one right step forward to further the rights of trans* people.

With all that being said, if all-gender washrooms are still a daunting thought to you at this point of the article, we would playfully ask you to reflect on the following question: do you like eating at Cactus Club English Bay, studying at Starbucks, or sipping a latté JJ Bean Coffee? Beyond the tasty food and caffeinated delights, you likely didn’t realize that all of these venues have all-gender washrooms. There’s a good chance you used one without realizing it!

On a final note, to any single mothers or fathers reading this, if you’ve ever felt uncomfortable bringing your young child of the opposite gender into the public washroom you use, consider all-gender washrooms as the solution.

After all, food courts are not segregated by gender, classrooms are not segregated by gender, so why are bathrooms segregated by gender? UBC, we believe that it’s time to take leadership, to advance the rights of transgender students, faculty, and staff, and to invest in all-gender washrooms. For a link on where existing all-gender washrooms on UBC’s Vancouver campus are available, please visit this link.