Wheelchair-accessible washroom only option available to transgendered students

Most people never have to think about which public washroom to use, or feel unsafe when they walk through the washroom doors – but for transgender or gender nonconforming individuals, using the public washroom can be a daunting experience.

Some university campuses across Canada, such as the University of Victoria in British Columbia, have responded to this social issue by installing gender-neutral washrooms as a place that everyone can feel safe..

However, there are no such washrooms in the core building of the Mount Royal University campus.

Queer activist Joshua Cadegan-Syms says that’s a problem because “there are people, many people out there, who don’t fit into the gender binary and for those people, forcing them to choose between the two is a form of oppression.”

Defining gender neutral

Three of the newer buildings at Mount Royal University have single-stall washrooms intended for people with limited physical mobility of both genders.

Positive Space, an organization on campus that promotes understanding and respect for gender diversity and sexual orientation, played a role in lobbying for these washrooms.

But Scharie Tavcer, an advocate for the organization, points out, “They’re not labelled as gender neutral, they’re labelled as male or female and wheelchair accessible.”

One of the new accessible bathrooms in the science wing at Mount Royal University.

Photo by Kristine SaretskyIn a pinch, transgendered students and gender queer – those who don’t define themselves as male or female – could use those facilities.

Cadegan-Syms doesn’t think that’s good enough.

“Those washrooms are specifically set aside for people with physical disabilities,” he says. “To use these as multipurpose and have gender queer people use them too totally negates the whole issue.”

“That’s saying we just want to shove you aside, and not recognize what the real issue is. And the real issue is we have a problem with gender and a problem with people that fall outside what our idea of gender is.”

But Mount Royal University vice-president of student affairs Brian Fleming, who also played a role in the installation of these washrooms, says those facilities are called “accessible” rather than “general neutral” because accessible is a “broader terminology.”

Gender neutral labels at other universities

Other universities have taken a different approach to the installation of gender-neutral washrooms on campus. The University of Victoria has renovated two multi-stall washrooms in the student union building to make it clear that students of any gender identity are welcome.

“They are basically two highly visible washrooms in the main hallway. The markings on the door that designate genders have been taken down and there’s a sign that says ‘gender inclusive washroom,’” says Lux West, one of the collective coordinators at UVic Pride.

He says that the washrooms initially “faced a bit of a backlash from some students who said that to use these multi-stall gender-neutral washrooms would be against their beliefs, and that these washrooms would be inaccessible to them.”

But overall reception has been positive and the University of Victoria is now leading a national coalition for gender-neutral washrooms to be included on all Canadian campuses.

Another approach to gender-neutral washrooms is to indicate their openness to people of all genders through a public sign. Those signs have a symbol that combines the male and female symbols into one body.

They are meant to indicate openness to people who identify as male, female, transgender and gender queer. They acknowledge that not everybody fits into the male or female gender identity.

Future of gender-neutral washrooms

In regards to the future of gender neutral washrooms at Mount Royal University, Fleming says, “We haven’t made a kind of rule or regulation on this, but certainly… when we’re doing renovations or expansions, we’re certainly making note that that’s something that should be in new buildings.”

He states that renovations to older buildings on campus could present an opportunity to make the washrooms in the core building on campus more accessible. Inclusion of the gender-neutral symbol on existing washrooms could also be approved in the future after a review.

Cadegan-Syms hopes for positive changes to accessibility for gender nonconforming students in the future.

He says, “By having a gender neutral washroom on campus, not only does it do a service to these people but it sends a message to these people that they are valued and we are trying to better understand how they identify.”

ksaretsky@cjournal.ca