By Victoria Stunt
Jack had to pee.
It’s a basic human function. There’s usually no complication. There’s usually no hesitation. One just goes to the washroom and solves the problem.
But things weren’t so simple for Jack.
Jack O’Donnell* was a 15-yearold student who identified as a trans male, yet his peers and teachers saw him as a woman and he wasn’t allowed to enter the men’s washroom.
His high school also required him to take the girls’ physical education class and refused to call him by his chosen name, instead calling him by the name on his birth certificate.
Today, 21-year-old O’Donnell is at Ryerson and works to help promote gay and trans issues on campus.
“It’s a difficult path, and unfortunately it’s unheard [of],” he says. “If you talk to a lot of trans people, my [story] is a little happier than most.” Ryerson is known for its open and accepting environment. The university boasts student groups of every kind, with a heavy emphasis on diversity and equity. The administration implemented an entirely new position for a vice president and vice provost equity, diversity and inclusion this semester. Yet in examining everything from our anti-discrimination policies to our bathroom facilities, one underlying theme can be determined: Ryerson has made impressive strides in becoming a trans-friendly campus, but there is still plenty to be done.
In an article published on advocate.com, a list was compiled of “The Top 10 Trans-Friendly Colleges and Universities” in the U.S. Shane Windemeyer, the founder and executive director of the Campus Pride Index, wrote the article along with one of the non-profit Index’s research consultants, Genny Beemyn. They used the group’s criteria for LGBT-friendly schools, which their organization specializes in, and applied them to look specifically at trans issues in the country’s post-secondary system.
In Canada, trans advocacy began in schools more recently. The winning campuses in the U.S. have been advocating for years to earn their top scores. In utilizing criteria the Index considered, a closer look can be taken at the highs and lows on Ryerson’s campus from a trans perspective.
Jade Pichette, a master’s of social work student and trans woman, started her graduate degree at Ryerson this fall.
She’s been an activist for queer and trans cultural competency for about eight years with Pink Triangle Services in Ottawa and has lost count of the number of organizations she’s worked with, but estimates it as close to 100.
This is the third university that Pichette has attended, and she says it’s the most inclusive thus far. She still advises that there is plenty of work to be done, saying that the changes can be divided into two categories: ones made through the administration and ones advocated for by the Ryerson Student’s Union.
Marwa Hamad, vice president equity at the RSU, says that as of now, the conversation hasn’t progressed as far as it should at Ryerson.
“I think there’s a lot of silence around it, there’s a lot of stigma around it, and there’s a lot of dismissive behaviour around it,” she says.
In 2004, RyePride and what was then called the Women’s Centre campaigned to have gender inclusive washrooms all around campus. Yet, nine years later, little progress has been made.
A website called safetopee.org tracks gender-neutral and inclusive bathrooms around the world. It documents that in downtown Toronto, there are about 20 gender inclusive washrooms. One is listed on Ryerson’s campus in the Image Arts (IMA) building. There are two more confirmed but not listed on the site, one in the basement of Eric Palin Hall (EPH) and another on the first floor of the Rogers Communication Centre (RCC).
Denise O’Neil Green, vice provost/ vice president equity, diversity, and inclusion says that from what she can tell, the bathrooms at Ryerson accommodate everyone.
She declined commenting further.
She says she has not had many conversations about trans inclusive initiatives on the administrative level as of yet.
“If a washroom is single stall, it should be gender neutral,” says Pichette.
“I don’t care where it is, it makes no sense that a single stall washroom should be gendered,” she says. “Often they exist in really odd places that a lot of people don’t know [about].” The one she has visited most is tucked away in the basement of Eric Palin Hall. Having gendered spaces on campus ignores people’s identities and forces them to choose a gender that may not be inline with their identities, says Hamad. “That is extremely oppressive, that is extremely discriminatory and that is extremely violent in its nature.” The Centre for Women’s and Trans People did not want to comment on the issue.
Universities around Canada are changing to become more gender inclusive. The University of British Columbia (UBC) announced in 2007 that it would overhaul 391 bathrooms to make them gender inclusive, but also inclusive for Muslims and nursing mothers.
“I hope it says that we can create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students,” says Janet Mee, the director of access and diversity at the school to Maclean’s magazine. “It’s an issue of safety, but also one of dignity.” As for Ryerson, Hamad says the change would be a gradual one.
First, the trans-inclusive conversation needs to become a priority at the school.
Student Housing Services (SHS) at Ryerson is addressing this conversation.
This year they’ve developed a gender-neutral initiative to help trans-identified students in choosing which style room they would like to reside in.
“Residence has always been really accessible, but they’ve always had to ask,” says manager of student housing services Chad Nuttall. He says before students would have to out themselves as trans to ask the housing office for help in choosing the right room for their needs.
The new trans initiative brochures show the same single rooms in Pitman Hall and the International Living and Learning Centre (ILLC). But now, they highlight Pitman’s choice between single apartments with shared bathrooms (co-ed and private use) and the apartments, which are now being offered mixed gender with bathrooms included. ILLC boasts the same private room and bathroom. Working with what they have and displaying those changes helps circumvent the need for trans students to out themselves to find out more about their options.
The Ontario government has also begun to make changes to be more inclusive. In June 2012, the provincial government passed Toby’s Law, which added gender expression to The Human Rights Code and also to policies at Ryerson. All three major political parties sponsored, passed and supported the bill. Ontario is the first major region in North America to give human rights protections to trans-identified people.
“A lot of [trans-inclusiveness] will actually come out of Toby’s Law being instituted because now they have to,” says Pichette. “So now[the school] can either pay to institute actual comprehensive training on these issues that have been added to The Human Rights Act or [they] could possibly wind up in a situation where [they] can experience a human rights complaint.” In October, the province amended its rules so that trans-identified individuals are able to change their gender on their birth certificates without having to have a sex change surgery.
For students who would like to change their legal information with the administration at Ryerson, Pichette worries the school may require it to be legally changed before changed within the school.
She says that if the administration didn’t allow for the name to be changed, the RSU should think about awarding a grant to trans people to fund the legal name change.
Pichette says that as a white and educated trans women, it’s a privilege to speak out in the media as much as she’s been able to.
“There’s a lot less trans folks of colour who get to the graduate level.
There’s a lot of trans folks of colour, especially trans women of colour, who don’t get to post-secondary at all,” she says.
She says many trans people are excluded from universities because they don’t have what’s considered to be academically relevant.
“Their lived experiences of oppression have an impact. The way they’ve dealt with that oppression [and] the fact that they’ve survived on a daily basis is an act of resistance,” says Pichette.
She also encourages the hiring of trans faculty, or openess on the part of the faculty if they do exist and are comfortable with identifying as trans.
“Having faculty who are in permanent positions who are trans on campus can mean a lot to trans folks,” she says. “It can mean that our knowledge is valued, our experience is valued, and by extension can be a rallying point for folks.” O’Donnell says that he doesn’t see a lot of work being done at the school to make it more trans-inclusive and that those changes don’t just happen naturally.
“I think that there’s a mistaken belief that progress is just naturally occurring… but really it usually takes a very large amount of organizing to make that kind of thing happen and we just haven’t done it here.” The RSU, the Centre for Women and Trans People, and RyePride are in the process of putting together a trans focus group.
The purpose of the new group is to speak with the trans community at Ryerson about what they’d like to see change to make the university more inclusive.
The groups will announce the initiative at Ryerson’s Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) on Nov. 20, a day that remembers and mourns those who have been killed due to transphobia.
There have been no confirmations of Ryerson TDOR events at the time of publication, but the 519 Church St. Community Centre will be holding an event on Nov. 20 from 7 to 9 p.m.
The Centre for Women and Trans People are continuing their Trans Film Screening Series for TDOR at William Doo Auditorium on 45 Willcocks St. on Nov. 26.
*Name has been changed