VANCOUVER – Theron Meyer has come to expect double-takes and nasty comments every time she uses a public washroom.
The 20-year-old Simon Fraser University student, who identifies herself as trans feminine, goes out of her way to avoid multi-stall washrooms — even tolerating hours of discomfort to avoid the subtle but powerful harassment levelled against her.
“They’re always very deliberate. They look at me, they exit the washroom and then look at me again to make sure what my gender is,” she said.
“That’s very ostracizing. I think a lot of people don’t experience that, and don’t understand the degree to which that is harmful to my livelihood and to other trans people’s livelihood.”
Meyer was among the students who staged a protest Wednesday to demand more gender-inclusive washrooms at SFU.
The issue extends far beyond the university in Burnaby, B.C., as transgender students across Canada fight to feel safe using public facilities.
As part of their protest, transgender students occupied a men’s washroom at SFU, placing a sign on the door that read, “All genders welcome,” and “This toilet has been liberated from the gender binary.”
There are about 50 single-stall washrooms on the university’s main campus in Burnaby. But protesters say they want gender-inclusive signs added to them and a number of multi-stall men’s and women’s restrooms to be made gender-neutral.
“I think that bathrooms shouldn’t be places of identity and I think that using the washroom is everybody’s right,” said protest organizer Nathan Lyndsay, 24, who identifies himself as trans masculine.
“Trans students and gender-non-variant folks carry a lot of anxiety about accessing washrooms because of a real fear of violence and rape.”
Associate vice-president of student services Tim Rahilly said that since 2003, whenever the university does renovations on a washroom, it considers the feasibility of making it gender-neutral.
Rahilly said there are gender-neutral washrooms on student residences but agreed that the university needs more gender-inclusive facilities on campus. He added that administrators would meet with protesters to hear their concerns.
“The university is very much on board with trying to do our best to meet the needs of students, including this very important group of students.”
Across Canada, school boards and other public institutions have struggled with how to make transgender students feel safe.
McGill University introduced a policy in 2007 requiring every newly constructed building on campus to have a gender-neutral washroom, preferably on every floor. It has also committed to adding gender-neutral signs to single-stall washrooms wherever possible.
The University of British Columbia publishes a brochure of its single-stall washrooms, identifying which have gender-inclusive signs, while the University of Toronto is working on creating a comprehensive list of all single-user washrooms across several campuses.
Carleton University has about 25 gender-neutral washrooms, and the University of Alberta says it has more than 50 such facilities, although it is still working on signage.
The Vancouver School Board recently updated its policy to allow transgender students to use their washroom of choice, similar to rules that have been in place at the Toronto District School Board since 2012.
In Vancouver, the policy was the subject of contentious debate among critics who claimed it would scare away international students and affect neighbourhood property values.