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Accommodating the transgender student

Manitoba schools look to extend rights but none go as far as Vancouver's controversial policy

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Accessible-washroom signage is posted at a washroom at the University of Winnipeg.


Accessible-washroom signage is posted at a washroom at the University of Winnipeg. Photo Store

When the Vancouver school board voted last month to recognize the rights of transgender students, there were security and police officers standing guard at the chamber doors.

Supporters with placards and rainbow-coloured flags tried to drown out detractors who shouted down trustees while they debated revisions to its gender-identities and sexual-orientation policies.

The firestorm was no different than the recent one in Manitoba when the government -- through Bill 18 -- proposed extending protection to students over sexual identity.

On one side were parents and members of the public fearing educators pushing their agenda; on the other were medical and other experts who argued the policy change was important and necessary.

When the smoke had cleared, Vancouver school trustees realized they needed both physical accommodation for transgender students, as well as visible support from the top allowing students to express their preferred gender identities.

"Not all the staff members understand what it meant to be supportive and inclusive," Vancouver school board chairwoman Patti Bacchus said in an interview with the Free Press. "(Transgender students) get harassed a lot in the washrooms because they don't look like the gender they're perceived."

Manitoba educators are sitting up and taking notice.

While no school division here has gone as far as the Vancouver board, several have been installing gender-neutral washrooms.

The Winnipeg School Division has a plan underway to install a gender-neutral facility in every high school and junior high in the division -- essentially, a single washroom anyone can use.

In the Seven Oaks division, there are already gender-neutral washrooms in all of its schools.

"It has helped us reduce the amount of bullying and particularly homophobic bullying in our schools," superintendent Brian O'Leary said.

Experts in the transgender field believe gender-neutral washrooms are only a working symbol of changes to come.

"We're at a very interesting time," said Dr. Simon Trepel, the co-founder of Winnipeg-based GDAAY (Gender Dysphoria Assessment Action Youth). "This is just a replay. It happened 20 years ago with homosexuality. It's not so much a civil rights movement as a human rights movement."

Trepel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's medical school, said transgender youth and adults have for years hidden their true self-identity and not felt safe in "many areas of society we take for granted."

In the near future, other transgender issues will surface, including legally changing names or sex on birth certificates and public education on using pronouns transgenders prefer.

"People in society take a long time to digest different concepts about what it means to be human," Trepel noted. "The same thing is happening for transgender to now become a spotlight issue. We have a long way to go, but fortunately, the road has been partially paved...

"It's a challenge for all of us in the future."

And come September, the University of Winnipeg's new RecPlex indoor soccer complex will have a gender-neutral change room, an oversized single room with shower and toilet that will be wheelchair-accessible.

No one has come forward here asking for a similar policy specifically designed for transgender students, but that doesn't mean Manitoba should wait, said the head of the teachers' union.

"It's forcing the conversation" elsewhere in the country, said Paul Olson, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society.

"Every board should have a focused conversation on whether they should have (a policy)," Olson said. "It sends a pretty clear signal straight from the top."

Bacchus said the Vancouver school board has a broadly based pride committee advising on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, formed a decade ago when trustees in Vancouver adopted tough anti-homophobia policies.

"That committee advised there seemed to be some gaps in the policy supporting students who are transgender," she said.


There are students who are not the gender they may appear to be to others, or who are neither male nor female, she said. It can be fairly simple to install a single-unit washroom everyone can use, but finding space for gender-neutral change rooms in a school is more difficult, especially when the students also don't want people to notice they're not accessing the male or female facilities.

But Vancouver is doing it.

"It takes creativity in some of our older buildings," said Bacchus, who pointed out all kinds of people would prefer more privacy for all kinds of reasons.

Unfortunately, she said, too much national attention has been focused not on the policy or the needs for it, but for trustees' having approved the use of new pronouns for transgender students: xe for he/she, xem for him/her, xyr for his/hers.

Those pronouns came from the pride committee, she said.

Only 81 per cent of Vancouver school students self-identify as being completely straight, said Bacchus.

She said people shouldn't get distracted by the pronouns.

"The specific pronouns, I've never seen," Olson said. "I get the importance of coming up with something that rejects the traditional binary."

Olson said he knows transgender people who use 'they' to describe even a single individual, rather than a gender-specific term.

There needs to be a signal from the top, not just a decision to deal with transgender students on a case-by-case basis, which "could be a standard response of not dealing with an issue, and hoping no one comes forward."

Nor should students be forced to step forward publicly and ask for accommodation, Olson said: "You shouldn't have to be brave to go to school."

Jared Star, youth program co-ordinator at the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, said the issue of gender-neutral washrooms is based on "orthodox" ways of thinking. "It's all about body parts and tradition," he said. "It's not as simple as male and female. Everybody needs a safe place to go to the washroom. It's one thing they (transgenders) can do to take back some power and feel safe."

Star echoed the sentiment that the transgender community is in the early stage of a similar arc experienced by gay and lesbians in the past. "There is a bit more of a push challenging gender roles, especially coming from youth," he said. "I don't know if it's the next big thing, but every human rights issue is a big thing."

But just putting a sign up designating a washroom is not enough, Star added. "They have to educate people, right? There has to be a shift in thinking. It's a process but it has to come from the top down."

Gender-neutral washrooms are already provided at Elmwood, the Winnipeg Adult Education Centre, Churchill, Kelvin, Gordon Bell, R.B. Russell and General Wolfe, while washroom accommodations at Sisler will be completed soon, said a Winnipeg School Division official. All but General Wolfe are high schools.

"At our remaining high schools/junior highs, accommodations are made for transgender students as required. The division is continuing to move forward with a program to ensure gender-neutral washrooms will be provided in all of our high schools and junior highs," said the official.

While Seven Oaks has washrooms, it hasn't tackled the issue of pronouns. The washrooms have made a difference.

"The recent Winnipeg Regional Health Authority study of youth health found Seven Oaks has the lowest incidence of homophobic bullying in Winnipeg," O'Leary said. "We work to treat transgender youth with sensitivity and respect, but do not have a policy with respect to pronouns."

Brandon school board chairman Mark Sefton said trustees deal with each situation individually, working with students and their families to reduce the stress students experience. The division does not have a policy regarding personal pronouns and isn't considering one at this time, Sefton said. The situation is the same in the River East Transcona School Division.

St. James-Assiniboia superintendent Ron Weston said there is a new "respect for human diversity policy" that follows a practice of non-discrimination in the schools, but the division doesn't yet have non-gender-specific washrooms.

The Vancouver school board's revised policies to accommodate transgender students:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 A6

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