"Some people fit into girl and boy, and some people don't. And that's OK, because they're still people." — Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard, 13
City View Alternative is comprised of four classes of Grade 7s and 8s. Just 64 students occupying half a hallway on the third floor of another, barely bigger junior public school. The property, in the Brockton Village neighbourhood of Toronto's west end, has a history as a school since 1881.
But perhaps City View's most pivotal year came in 2013 when 22 scissor-wielding students joined together to cut the ribbon on their new all-gender washroom.
Grade 8 students Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard, left, and Severn Lortie, right, show off City View's pioneering all-gender washroom. (Photo: Joshua Ostroff/HuffPost Canada)
City View became the first school in Toronto to have one, and the first in Canada to do so proactively rather than in reaction to a complaint.
It was also among the first to have a multi-stall, all-gender washroom rather than one single stall. (The school prefers the term "all-gender" than "gender-neutral" as it's more inclusive.)
"A lot of people from outside the school ask me about it and say, 'That's weird,'" said Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard, a Grade 8 student and member of the school's Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA). "But because it's not weird for me, I explain it how I see it: it's a bathroom, it's pretty in there, there's artwork. It's nice."
The fight for trans rights is the civil rights struggle of our time. But as the issue has risen to the forefront of politics and pop culture, the backlash has been harsh.
There's North Carolina's infamous "bathroom bill" that bans trans people from using the bathroom of their gender identity, and prompted Bruce Springsteen to cancel a recent concert. It's one of 12 U.S. states with bathroom bills before legislatures and Canada's own transgender rights bill C-279 was derailed when a conservative senator added a discriminatory bathroom amendment. Nothing has been passed yet in its place.
Calgary's Catholic bishop recently played the totalitarian card over anti-discrimination guidelines for Alberta schools. Those were passed after a seven-year-old transgender girl from Edmonton was banned from using the girl's washroom in a Catholic elementary school.
'No issue is singular'
"Being at the edge of an issue is always interesting because you get to see the turns the issue takes, and you get to see how it's affected by other things. No issue is singular," said 14-year-old Severn "Sevy" Lortie, another Grade 8 member of City View's QSA.
"For instance, religion is a big obstacle because you want people to be able to practice their religion, but the idea of having religious rights that exclude other people's rights doesn't make sense to me. Like, our right is that you don't get to be together?"
He added: "For the record, I really do have nothing against religion itself. I think it's amazing. You get stories, and it's the embodiment of us trying to understand how everything works. I think the issue is when that understanding starts excluding people because you have this rigid path you want to follow — this is God's way.
"If I had a very religious Catholic person who was against [multi-stall all-gender bathrooms] I would never call them sexist or homophobic because as soon as you start using those, it just shuts everyone up. You don't need to go into the details of it. I'd just say it's for people who don't fit in."
Lens of social justice at school
It's not a huge surprise that City View was a pioneer on this front as their mandate is to teach through a social justice lens and to encourage activism. When consent was added to Ontario's updated sex-ed curriculum, it was a result of a school project by then-City View students Tessa Hill and Lia Valente. Their petition garnered 40,000 signatures and a meeting with Ontario's premier and education minister.
Like the consent issue, the push for an all-gender bathroom was also student-driven, arriving in the wake of the passage of Toby's Act in 2012, a transgender rights bill that added gender identity and expression to Ontario's human rights act.
"Social change is never easy. But we need to push forward."
— Alberta Education Minister Dave Eggen
"We started conversations about the difference between sex, gender and sexuality health classes with an eye to queering the health curriculum," recalled David Stocker, an award-winning City View teacher. He's also the instructor in charge of the school's QSA and a father of three, including a trans-identified pre-teen, and the youngest, Storm.
If that name sounds familiar, that's because Stocker and his wife sparked an international media circus after a Toronto Star story on their decision to raise Storm as gender-neutral.
The impact of the new health class lesson plans on gender identity and expression was felt almost immediately in City View's hallway, Stocker said.
"We started seeing graffiti go up on the washroom door signs. So people put a dress over one of the images on the boy's washroom, and a sign went up beside the girls' icon that not all girls wear dresses' and then another sign that said 'girls or not-binary' and 'boys or not-binary.' We had this idea that a discussion was happening among the students.
"So we said, if our school is about social justice activism, maybe we have to look in our own hallway."
The students started advocating for a third option.
The process took a few months. There were parent information sessions, which were relatively easy given the inherent progressive nature of City View parents, and consultations with the school board's gender-based violence prevention office, which asked how they had laid the foundation for a multi-stall all-gender washroom. That turned out to be key.
"If you just plop down an all-gender washroom because you legally have to, it's going to be very problematic. There will probably be violence in it, and people will be made fun of. So the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) has to work on creating an better environment," said Hewitt-Bernhard.
Setting a precedent
Since City View's bathroom opened, 50 other schools have followed suit. That was always the alt-school's strategy — set a precedent where it's easier and prove the potential. Now, due to an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal complaint by a trans child who was bullied over his gender identity in a bathroom, the TDSB announced in February that it will soon be available in all schools.
CBC reported that after the decision the child "scrawled" a note, decorated with pencil stars, that read "I'm glad about what people have done about the bathroom issue. I hope nobody has to go through what I had to go through."
But Hewitt-Bernhard said schools need to go beyond what is mandated.
"Opening an all-gender washroom is basically just good PR, but creating a better environment for people who are trans and LGBTQ is not." She noted that while she supports awareness events like the International Day of Pink — an anti-bullying campaign with a focus on homophobia and transphobia — she said it needs to be incorporated into school every day.
"In class, we talk about issues of justice. One of the reasons one of the reasons our school is such a safe place is because of that."
Grade 8 teacher David Stocker also helps run City View's Queer-Straight Alliance club. (Photo: Joshua Ostroff/HuffPost Canada)
Stocker also noted that despite the expansion of all-gender washrooms and the fact that "on paper the TDSB is one of the most progressive school boards on the planet," many, if not most, of them won't have multiple stalls.
"That's where people start flying off the handle," he explained. "People just don't worry so much about that because it’s a single person in there at any time.
"The thing about the multi-stall that's so critical is that by making it available to everybody across the gender spectrum, which may include trans students, nobody has to out themselves," Stocker adds. "The all-gender washroom was not about necessarily supporting trans students at all."
"Trans people have a right to use the washroom of their lived identity. So if you are male assigned at birth and you feel like you're a girl, it's likely and possible that you will use the girls’ washroom in the school and you have the legal right to do so. All-gender washrooms respond to students who are gender non-conforming or gender fluid, and allies."Story continues after slideshow:
Munroe Bergdorf is a London DJ, designer, model and activist. She has spoken out about the difficulties and abuse she has faced as a transgender woman, shedding light on the issues facing the trans community, as well as bravely discussing her own experience as a victim of attempted rape. Bergdorf has encouraged transgender people not to be afraid of their identity, speaking out for Pride London’s #FreedomTo campaign earlier this year. After experiencing bullying as a teenager, Bergdorf said she had a lightbulb moment when she realised she had to “start being true to herself”. She has since described the decision to begin her transition as the “best decision I’ve ever made”. She told the Daily Mail: “I’m so much happier now than I was growing up. “I want people to know that it's okay to be different, and that you shouldn't be scared of being the person you are. “I talk quite openly now about what's I've been through and frequently speak publicly about trans rights and community issues. “I think it's important that the world understands and respects transgender people, the struggles that they face and the rights that they deserve.”
Paris Lees is a journalist, presenter and transgender rights campaigner who has challenged how the media talk about transgender issues. She founded the first British magazine aimed at the trans community, META, as well as working for a number of other publications. Lees has also made appearances on Question Time and Newsnight, as well as speaking at the Oxford Union. She currently works with Trans Media Watch to help Channel 4 remove transphobic material from its content. She has also spoken out over a number of incidents deemed transphobic, including media coverage of transgender teacher Lucy Meadows and a column by Julie Burchill in which she described trans people as "a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs". She was awarded the Positive Role Model Award for LGBT in the 2012 National Diversity Awards, Ultimate Campaigner at the Cosmopolitan Women of the Year Awards, and also topped the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List in 2013. After a tough start in life, which culminated in a spell in prison, Lees spoke of the change in media coverage of transgender people. Speaking when she was named Young Campaigning Journalist of the Year award at the MHPC 30 To Watch awards earlier this year, Lees said: “"When I first transitioned I was depressed and isolated. I looked to the media for inspiration and all I saw were people like me being ridiculed. "Five years on and things are looking very different."
Dr Jay Stewart was honoured for his services to the trans community with an OBE in 2014. He is a co-founder of Gendered Intelligence, a not-for-profit group which aims to increase understandings of gender diversity through creative ways, working with the trans community and those who have an impact on the lives of trans people. The group particularly specialises in supporting young trans people aged 11-25. Stewart led ‘What makes your gender? Hacking into the Science Museum’ – a £10,000 project funded by Heritage Lottery Fund with London’s Science Museum - as well as a number of other projects. As well as chairing Gendered Intelligence’ board of directors, Stewart also acts as a mentor and youth group session leader. Gendered Intelligence also provides age-appropriate workshops and assembles for primary school children to help them explore gender roles. When the initiative was criticised by a select few, Stewart spoke out on the importance of such education. In a statement on Gendered Intelligence's blog, he said: “It’s so important to teach children in schools that they can be anything that they want to be, regardless of the gender that they have been given at birth. They can be engineers, nurses and politicians; they can be caring and kind, strong and forthright; they can wear what they like and look how they like. It’s okay for all children to be girlish, boyish or anything in-between. “Our work at Gendered Intelligence includes going into primary school settings. It’s important because gender stereotyping and reinforcing gender norms start from a young age. “If we are going to tackle the prejudice in society towards those who express their gender differently from what is considered the norm, we need to introduce teaching early on in a person’s education. He added: “Trans people – like all people – have a right to an education in a safe environment. The only way to make school safe for trans pupils, and safe for everyone to express their gender, is to start talking about gender variance at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Sabah Choudrey helped found Trans Pride Britain, the first trans march in the UK. They also founded the QTIPOC Brighton Network for queer, trans and intersex people of colour, and desiQ for queer South Asian people in the London/South East area. Choudrey works for Allsorts Youth Project in Brighton as an LGBT/Trans/POC Youth Support Worker challenging racism in LGBT scenes, providing advocacy services and ‘Unlearning Racism’ training in LGBT spaces. They also work with Gendered Intelligence, providing support and mentoring for young trans people of colour. Choudrey speaks out about their experience of being trans and Muslim, as well as speaking at events such as TEDx talks. In a blog on HuffPost UK, Choudrey explained: “It has always been apparent to me that queerness is not something visible in non-white cultures. This was the history I was told. But this was the history rewritten by those that colonised the land of my mother and father, who criminalised queer in our land, and from then on, queer became synonymous with sin. “It is no surprise to me that it has taken me three more years to speak publicly about being Muslim and trans. “We're in a culture that teaches queer people that we don't deserve to be religious. We are taught to put faith only in ourselves because self love is the only love we will feel. Queer people don't deserve faith or hope, because why pray when you're already queer? Choudrey continued: “What society teaches us about religion is that it's a weakness, and I felt for years that it was being an Atheist that kept me strong. It wasn't until I was in a relationship with an Atheist and I finally talked about my Muslim background did I feel like Atheism had taken something from me I never wanted to let go of. “Accepting that I am Muslim again has been the hardest part of my journey. Accepting Islam back into my life has been the most challenging part of my identity. It does not feel easy yet. But it does feel true.”
Rebecca Root is an actress who appeared in the lead role in BBC romcom ‘Boy Meets Girl’, and has also appeared in a range of programmes including Hollyoaks, Casualty and Midsomer Murders. She will also be appearing in the upcoming film ‘The Danish Girl’ alongside Eddie Redmayne. However the actress is also a qualified voice coach - the only trans person to work as a voice and speech specialist in the UK today. She runs transgender voice adaptation sessions to help people to find a voice that they feel fits their gender. Her thesis, ‘There and Back Again: Adventures in Genderland’ has also attracted international attention and Root resented it at Harvard University. Speaking about the benefit of speech therapy for people who are transitioning, Root told the Telegraph: “The voice is more evident than what's between your legs, or on your chest. "I know some girls [people who have transitioned to female] who just don't care, who really don't mind sounding like what's considered a typical bloke. "But some say they simply won't talk because they haven't got what they think is the 'right' voice. "They won't make phone calls, and when they have to go to the shops they don't answer questions, they just mumble something. They're afraid of opening their mouths and that's such a shame." Root is also a mentor for young transgender people through Gendered Intelligence.
Fox Fisher starred in Channel 4’s documentary ‘My Transsexual Summer’ in 2011, which revealed the journey of a number of transgender people as they undertook a range of gender affirmation procedures. He went on to become the co-founder of My Genderation, an ongoing documentary project exploring gender variance. Fisher told the BBC: “Not only are we also trans* [written with an asterisk to denote a catch-all term for those defining across the gender spectrum] people, we have our own experience on the other side of the camera, as documentary subjects, on My Transsexual Summer, Channel 4, 2011. “These factors give us a very unique perspective and we are in a trusted position within a growing community. “We work alongside many UK and global gender support groups which share our vision of changing public perceptions already clouded by existing media fabrications and negative reporting of trans* people. Although things really are changing, there is a long way to go. “We make films independently, to humanise the process of transition, to allow the audience to empathise with trans* issues. We provide a platform to consider gender and all its constructs. We aim to provide engaging films on various aspects of being trans* and coming to terms with gender variance." He is also an ambassador for All About Trans - a project that "looks at creative ways to encourage greater understanding between trans people and media professionals to support better, more sensitive representation in the UK media." Fisher continues to speak out about the issues facing trans people in the UK. He also helped to found Trans Pride Brighton and has co-written a children’s book, entitled ‘Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl?’.
Hannah Winterbourne (R) is the most senior transgender officer in the British Army. After a successful nine year career in the Armed Forces, which saw her graduate from Sandhurst and join the Royal and Mechanical Engineers, Winterbourne was in the middle of a tour of Afghanistan in 2012 when she decided she wanted to begin her transition. Despite the potential difficulties of such a masculine environment, she said that the army was “very, very supportive”. She told Wales Online: “ It is a great place for transgender personnel. They don’t care if you are LGBT, black or white, as long as you can do your job.” Winterbourne is now the Army’s transgender representative, which involves dealing with education and welfare, as well as helping with issues any trans soldiers may have. She is also a patron of Mermaid, a support group for children and teenagers with gender identity issues, as well as an ambassador for LGBT Sport Cymru. She told Wales Online: “A lot of inroads are being made with LGBT people breaking out into the mainstream. “I would say to someone reading this, ‘you are who you are and no amount of worrying or angst is going to change that so understand that who you are is absolutely fine. “Try to find someone you can confide in. “I want to show people what it looks like to be trans and happy.”
Alex Bertie is a trans YouTuber who has documented his experience of his transition since he was a teenager. Although just 20, Bertie has developed a strong following online with more than 150,000 subscribers and over nine million views on his channel TheRealAlexBertie. In his videos, Bertie describes various aspects of life as a transgender man, including medical appointments, relationships and coming out. He also provides helpful practical guides on his channel on topics such as buying chest binders, hair styling and coming out. As well as providing advice and support to young trans people, Bertie also gives tips to people who may have trans friends, family or colleagues, including how not to offend people and appropriate words to use. He told Ten Eighty magazine: “I’ve actually had a lot of parents talking to me. Like, parents have inboxed me on Facebook, which is so weird. They’re, like, older than my mum, and they’re open to talking about it, which is just amazing. They’re willing to reach out to young people, which I think is really, really cool. “Some people come to me with queries. They think their child might be going through what I’m going through, and they want to help them with that as much as possible. Other times, they’ve been directed by their kids to come and talk to me, or to watch my videos.” He added: “I think I do get a lot of positivity. More than I thought I’d get. Now and then, I do get the odd bit of confusion, or some hate, but that’s easily nipped in the bud just by information, just by education."
Roberta Francis, an underground queer poet, helped to set up London TAGS (Trans And Gender Non-Conforming Swimming) to give trans and non-binary identified people safe and positive space to enjoy swimming. After getting fed up with being misgendered by local leisure providers, Francis took the initiative and set up TAGS, working with Gendered Intelligence and in partnership with Lewisham Council. The sessions involve the private hire of a pool with both gender specific and gender neutral changing rooms available. Pool staff are also given training to ensure that gender issues are treated sensitively. Francis told Pink News: “I felt there was a big need for a swimming group in London to allow trans and gender non conforming people the opportunity to have access to a safe space. “Being able to swim is a basic right but for many trans people it can be really difficult because of how we are treated in the community as a whole.” She told xoJane that she knew that she was doing the right thing after the first session, She said: “The first night was wonderful. We got fantastic feedback from everyone who attended. The Fusion staff, reception, and lifeguards were helpful and friendly, which made everyone feel comfortable.” Francis is also determined to tackle discrimination in the classroom through her work as a supply teacher and has spoken out about the difficulties she has faced as a transgender person working in education.
Since their all-gender bathroom opened, kids from City View have visited other schools to talk to parents and teachers about their experience and assuage their concerns. The experience has been challenging as the reaction outside of their school's progressive bubble has been more fraught.
"They were like, 'Woah, those parents are really upset, and I'm surprised,' Stocker said. "[They] thought this would just be a done deal. So there's still a lot of work to be done."
"You have to be open," Lortie advised. "It’s really easy to get angry at the person saying, 'You’re not credible, you're just kids.' But you have to see it from their perspective, and just work with them. I listened to the points they had to say, and I thanked them for sharing and that I welcomed the discussion and then I asked them questions."
Teaching other kids
Both Lortie and Hewitt-Bernhard said that teaching kids about gender identity and gender expression early is key. Though both come from progressive families, they said that when they arrived at City View in Grade 7, they didn't understand the issue or the need for an all-gender washroom.
"I think it’s important to start teaching these ideas as soon as possible," said Hewitt-Bernhard. "You don't need to say everything but it's important to know that people who are trans exist. Because if someone is young and they are trans, you don’t want them to feel that they're wrong in some way.
"People know that they don't fit in at an early age."
QSA posters in the City View stairwell. (Photo: Joshua Ostroff/HuffPost Canada)
All-gender washrooms have since spread to schools across the country.
In Alberta, where there has been months of contentious debate, even Catholic schools met a March 31 deadline on submitting new gender diversity policies, which are now under review.
Alberta's Education Minister David Eggen acknowledged, "Social change is never easy. But we need to push forward."
It's still somewhat piecemeal as far as accessibility, but despite efforts by some parents and religious organizations, the human rights argument has seemingly won the day when it comes to the battle over school bathrooms.
'We'll be on this path for some time'
When the Vancouver School Board debated genderless washrooms in 2014, police were brought in to maintain order. But when North Vancouver installed its first gender-neutral washroom last fall, Seycove's principal Mark James was asked by VanCity Buzz if there was any pushback from parents, faculty or students. He responded "none whatsoever."
The country seems to have move on, though Stocker noted a survey by Canadian human rights group, Egale, found that 61.5 per cent of trans students "feel unsafe at school because of gender or gender expression," while over half of trans students feel unsafe in school washrooms, second only to phys-ed change rooms.
"You still have significant amounts of homophobia and transphobia. So I think we'll be on this path for some time," said Stocker.
Naturally, City View has started pushing us down that path already.
"It’s like being afraid of the dark, right? You’re afraid of what you don't know and you tend to close yourself off to that kind of stuff."
Last year, they offered the option of an all-gender cabin on their year-end trip, an idea prompted by a trans student who did not felt comfortable sleeping in a gendered tent during a fall camping trip and had wanted to stay home instead. There was a bit more concern here from parents, but the plan went ahead with four single gender cabins as well as four shared cabins with private change areas.
Lortie was one of the students who volunteered for the all-gender cabin. He described it as a great experience, and one that got him hanging around with people other than his best friends.
"It's like being afraid of the dark, right? You're afraid of what you don't know and you tend to close yourself off to that kind of stuff," said Sevy about parental concerns over these efforts to create trans-inclusive spaces. "I don't put anyone down for that. Everyone is scared of something that's new to them.
"Just because I'm a kid doesn't mean I'm immune to growing up and when I'm an adult I’m sure I'll be afraid of some thing for their kids. Ultimately, parents are really concerned for their children's well-being — but how they do that should be evaluated."
Joshua Ostroff is a senior editor for HuffPost Canada.