By Stacey Askew
Going to the washroom should not be a dreaded event, let alone a routine of explaining yourself to a stranger.
Still, Trish Van Leeuwan “explains herself” almost every time she enters Ryerson’s women’s washroom.
“I walk into a washroom and I resemble a male — with short hair and male clothing. Then a child, elderly person or even an average woman looks up at (me) in a panic,” said Leeuwan, a second-year social work student who identifies with the transgendered and lesbian community.
On Tuesday, RyePRIDE took a step towards making her predicament obsolete. A small forum was held to further RyePRIDE’s goal of creating a safe and comfortable, all-gender washroom on campus — specifically for those who are transgendered or androgynous, queer, diabetic, use alternative feminine hygiene products, have young children, or are shy.
“Going to the washroom shouldn’t be about who you are but about what you need to do when you get there,” said Chris Wright, one of the forum’s organizers.
RyePRIDE’s short-term objective is to have the signs of accessible washrooms changed to just “Washroom,” with a small accessibility icon. It also wants to create an inventory of these locations to give new students a washroom “safe list.”
In the future, it wants new buildings to include extra single stalls for people who feel uncomfortable in public washrooms. Director of Campus Planning and Facilities, Ian Hamilton, who attended the forum said, “We (the university) understand that people need privacy for different reasons.”
Hamilton said he was enlightened by the stories Susan Gapka, a member of the transgendered community, and Bobbi Moore, who is in a wheelchair, told about their problems using public washrooms.
He pointed out that the campus already has 62 single-stall washrooms, 32 of which are in the new engineering and business buildings, although some are locked for security reasons.
He hopes to have a list of these locations on the planning and facility site by the end of January. Hamilton added that the university would likely incorporate more single-stalled washrooms into the school’s “Master Plan.”
A petition for the campaign had garnered 111 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, the majority of them from social work students. Washrooms are one of the biggest issues transgendered people face said Margaret Schneider, a psychology professor at York who counsels transgendered individuals.
“When transgendered people talk about what they need, aside from things that are not very concrete, more awareness, etc., gender-neutral washrooms are right at the top of the list,” she said.
She believes such a change is a natural and necessary progression. “I don’t think it’s very difficult for an organization to have at least one gender-free washroom… especially when it’s a real problem in the day-to-day living (of transgendered individuals).” Three years ago a similar campaign was held, but Wright said this time the focus has shifted to education and highlighted goals to benefit the highest number of people — not just transgendered and queer students.
Susan Moore, who spoke at the forum approved of Ryerson’s strategy of including other groups in the campaign. “I don’t see it having the broader strength without the issues of other groups included.”
Doreen Fumia, a Ryerson sociology professor and chair of the Ryerson Faculty Association’s equity committee, said it is about time Ryerson joined other schools, such as McGill, who have been successful in their campaigns.
“When an institution states it cares about people, that’s one thing, but when it demonstrates it will back up the positions of equity, there’s no question those on the outside are welcomed,” said Fumia. In the meantime, Leeuwan will continue using the women’s washroom. “When I walk into a washroom and see (people) looking at me, I can sense what they’re thinking, that I could assault them, kidnap them, rape them.
“It’s not their fault they feel that way. I don’t mean to scare them. They see what they see, people aren’t aware.”