Toronto District School Board Should Be Commended For All-Gender Bathrooms
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Toronto District School Board Should Be Commended For All-Gender Bathrooms

The board will roll out gender-neutral bathrooms across all schools—and others could stand to follow its lead.

When you gotta go, you gotta go—but sometimes, it’s not that easy.

For students who identify as transgender or non-binary (that is, those who are neither male nor female, but something in-between or off the gender spectrum entirely), going to the washroom at school can be distressing. Trans people often fear harassment for using what their peers have deemed the “wrong washroom”; one study found 68 per cent of trans people (not just students) have been ridiculed, gawked at, or told they’re in the wrong bathroom in public. And the gendered nature of most public school washrooms means many are forced to pick between two facilities that don’t match their identities.

The solution has long been gender-neutral washrooms, or facilities that aren’t denoted by gendered signage. The Toronto District School Board agrees, and announced last week that it will be implementing all-gender washrooms in schools across the city.

The move is a crucial step in making schools safer spaces for LGBTQ students—and other Toronto schools could stand to follow the TDSB’s lead.

The first all-gender washroom at a TDSB school opened in 2013 at the west-end City View Public School. Since then, students at the school say the washroom has become a new normal. The hope implicit in TDSB’s decision to roll out all-gender washrooms across the board, it seems, is to flesh out that normalcy across the city.

So far, about 50 TDSB schools have an all-gender bathroom.

In 2012, the board also instated an equity policy stating that students could use the washrooms that best corresponded with their gender identity. Even still, in one case documented by CBC in 2015, a trans student was harassed in the bathroom by peers.

The board is going ahead with the implementation “even if it is uncomfortable for some people,” Ken Jeffers, the co-ordinator of the TDSB’s gender-based violence prevention initiative, told CTV News.

Certainly, some people are. As there always seems to be with LGBTQ initiatives, there are detractors (even in the most unlikely of places). There are those who believe the washrooms will become grounds for sexual misconduct or harassment.

But in my few years of reporting on LGBTQ issues and interviewing people across the gender spectrum, the consensus is that the washrooms provide a place to go in comfort—the way cisgender folks use the bathroom, without a second thought.

That this is an issue at all is troubling—and has had terrible consequences for populations that are already vulnerable. In fact, using public washrooms has come up more often than I expected while reporting on stories about trans and non-binary communities. One trans man I interviewed told me his coping mechanism in avoiding harassment in public washrooms was to avoid the facilities all together. He would often plan not to drink before leaving the house to prevent himself from having to go to the bathroom while out. He is not alone: one survey found 57 per cent of trans Ontarians avoid using the bathroom in public. A non-binary interviewee told me they experienced dirty looks when headed to both the men’s or women’s washrooms—there was no happy medium. Instead, they stopped going out entirely.

At school, this is not an option: Students spend about seven hours a day, five days a week in class, and spend even more time participating in extra-curricular activities. They should, without a doubt, feel comfortable using the washroom. If that means implementing a non-gendered or all-gender bathroom, so be it.

There’s still no timeline for the TDSB’s implementation of the plans, which could be costly for some students riding out the final, treacherous years of their public-school education.

But there’s also no word on how other Toronto schools will handle the issue. Namely, the Toronto Catholic District School Board has kept mum on its stance regarding all-gender bathrooms. An email to the TCDSB from Torontoist inquiring about any pre-existing gender-neutral facilities or plans to implement them went unanswered.

After Toby’s Law passed in 2012, Ontario students became legally protected from discrimination on the grounds of gender identity or expression. Yet, stories from critics have still popped up since then, fighting against students who use the washrooms that best suit their needs. In one 2014 case, a parent complained that her child would have to use the same bathroom as a biological boy, and feared what this would mean as the student moved into puberty.

Listening to the experiences of trans people should be enough to encourage other school boards to move forward with similar policies. No one should have to avoid the washroom, or fear being tormented within it, because of their gender identity.

UPDATE 11:40 AM Since publication, TCDSB has responded to Torontoist‘s request for comment. According to senior coordinator of communications John Yan, the board has “all-gender washrooms in a few of our schools based on local school needs, and at the discretion of the principal in consultation with board staff.” The TCDSB also intends to develop a policy for the bathrooms.