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Leon Laidlaw Headshot

Gender-Inclusive Universities Are A Human Rights Issue

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Gender-neutral restroom signage. (Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Gender inclusivity isn't about young people being too "sensitive," as a professor at the University of Toronto would have us believe. It is about people having access to facilities that many of us take for granted. And it is about dignity. It is about human rights.

For example, neither fitness centre on the University of Ottawa campus offers appropriate facilities for trans or gender non-conforming students. This means that through tuition fees, some students are paying for fitness centre memberships that they are unable to use.

Leon Laidlaw (co-author of this article) recalls arriving on campus last fall and being ensured by gym staff that he could be accommodated. Yet, on his first visit, he was sent to the "visiting team" change room, which resulted in him accidentally walking in on women changing. After expressing his concerns to staff, conditions did not change. On one event, he was even sent to an equipment room -- with no lockers, toilet or shower -- to change, but refused. After a demeaning and defeating pattern of events, he has since stopped using the gym on campus.

university of toronto
University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterman refuses to use genderless pronouns, citing overreaching "political correctness" at the institution.

At the University of Ottawa, students and faculty have long expressed the need for gender-inclusive services on campus, but the university is yet to be moved on the issue. While "universal" or "alternative" single-stall facilities exist, they are far and few, and hold the potential for "outing" and isolating trans students and those whose identity or expression does not align with that of "man" or "woman."

The creation of all-gender facilities would also provide a space for parents with children of a different gender or people with disabilities requiring an attendant who is of a different gender. While the aim is not to convert all washrooms and change rooms, providing a diversity of options will better serve the needs of the community.

So, what explains the university's lackluster response? One reason might be the fear that gender-inclusive washrooms put women's safety at risk. Gender segregation, however, does not prevent sexual assault. Women's bathrooms do not provide any physical barrier to potential predators. And the vast majority of sexual assaults, as we know, are committed by someone known to the victim, not by random strangers in the bathroom.

The implication is that trans women don't count -- that they aren't "real" women.

As Barbara Hall, former Chief Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, explains: "We have never seen a documented case of a heterosexual man gaining access to a woman's change room by posing as transgender. In fact, in washrooms and change rooms, and in society at large, transgender persons are more at risk than anyone else of being harassed, abused, assaulted or even killed..."

Trans women are women and they are amongst the most vulnerable populations. Yet, when discussing the safety of women, their needs are often overlooked. When universities suggest that they care about women's safety, but then ignore the safety of trans women, the implication is that trans women don't count -- that they aren't "real" women. This is transphobia, or as Julia Serano puts it, cissexism, which "construes trans people's gender identities and expressions as less legitimate than those of cis people (those who are not trans)."

Another reason that has been cited to stall progress on this issue is an outdated building code which, depending on interpretation, may or may not imply that segregated bathrooms are a requirement.

What are we waiting for? A human rights challenge?

However, according to documents attained through an access to information request, the university hired a code consultant to study the issue and the resulting report indicates that even in current code, no wording requires gender segregation.

Members of the institute met with Ottawa City councillors Mathieu Fleury and Catherine McKenney, who confirmed there is no code violation. It is also reasonable to suggest that Ontario's human rights policy would trump a building code, if put to the test.

So, what are we waiting for? A human rights challenge? Let's pressure universities across the country to take immediate steps to create gender-inclusive facilities on campus.

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