WINNIPEG - Students at some universities on the Prairies are pushing for gender-neutral washrooms for transgendered people who don't feel comfortable having to choose between bathrooms for men or women.
Those behind the idea say transgendered people are often harassed, bullied or embarrassed no matter which bathroom they choose. They even suggest that the prospect of having to pick a gender-specific bathroom can lead to health issues since many ignore the call of nature until they can find a suitable bathroom.
"Not everyone conforms to gender binaries of either male or female," said Ro Mills, a transgendered student at the University of Winnipeg.
"I've seen a lot of other people's identities change while here at university and during that transition, even before, it can make going to the washroom really, really difficult or embarrassing. Using a public restroom shouldn't really be a privilege. It should just be a given right."
Gender-neutral washrooms are still a relative rarity.
The University of Western Ontario in London converted some bathrooms for the disabled to gender-neutral ones in 2008. The University of Victoria and McGill University in Montreal both have at least one gender-neutral washroom.
Some argue that the bathrooms further stigmatize a group already striving for acceptance, but Mills said having a gender-neutral washroom that everyone could use would simply recognize the diversity of today's campus.
"If only exclusively identified transgendered people use this washroom, it would almost reverse its purpose," said Mills, director of the university's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Centre.
"If that's the only people using it, you are almost ostracizing yourself again. The education part comes in to tell people that it's OK to use this washroom, even if you are completely comfortable using the gendered washrooms that you already use."
At the University of Regina, the student association decided to raise the issue with senior administration after noticing the single-stall handicapped washrooms were always full — and not always with disabled students.
Kent Peterson, president of the university's student association, said there is a concern students could essentially "out" themselves by using a gender-neutral bathroom. But some are essentially already doing that by using a washroom for the disabled when they have no obvious disability, he said.
The university's administrators were initially a bit surprised by the proposal, Peterson said, but they have warmed to the idea. The vice-president is open to the idea of installing gender-neutral washrooms in any new facilities.
But students would like to see some existing bathrooms converted before then, Peterson said.
"You can just put a 'washroom' sign on the door," he said. "That's going to get rid of stigmatization and it's easy to do. If I had a screwdriver and a sign, I could do it myself. I hope we can at least get the university administration on board because it really is as simple as changing a sign."
The University of Winnipeg says it's willing to change a few of its signs as early as this school year.
Debra Radi, executive director of the office of the university's vice-president, said senior administration wants to make campus as inclusive as possible. No one has a sense of how many students who use gender-neutral bathrooms, she said, but the idea is worth considering if students are raising it.
The university recently submitted a grant proposal to the federal government seeking cash to pay for more accessible washrooms on campus. Gender-neutral bathrooms could be covered under that proposal, Radi said.
"Currently students are not feeling safe going into either a male washroom or a female washroom so we obviously do need to create safe spaces where they feel comfortable accessing facilities on campus."
Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous story wrongly identified Debra Radi as the current chair of the board of regents