Author Footnotes with Sheila Cavanagh

I was overjoyed to hear that Bill C-389 passed through the General Assembly on Feb. 9. It is now ready for a vote in Senate. If it passes we will see 'gender identity' and 'gender expression' added to the Canadian Human Rights Act and to the Criminal Code as prohibited grounds for discrimination. It would be a landmark victory for trans and gender variant folks who experience discrimination at work; in universities, colleges, and high schools; in restaurants; bars; transit stations; prisons; parks; malls, Canada Customs, public facilities --- you name it!

As the author of Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination, I couldn't help but notice that those opposing the Bill routinely evoke the specter of the bathroom. Rather than vilifying the toilet and evoking it as a rationale for gender segregated spaces in public, let us consider a few facts about violence:

1) There are no laws in Canada governing the gender of bathroom users but security guards and police continue to forcefully remove trans and gender variant folks from public facilities.

2) Violence against women is more likely to occur in dark, enclosed, gender segregated spaces than in well-lit, public, and accessible spaces. The gendered signs on bathroom doors do not decrease the likelihood of physical or sexual assault.

3) When we talk about violence against women we need to include trans women who are --- as my research shows --- very likely to experience harassment and sometimes physical assault by non trans women in the washroom. Non trans men also feel entitled to forcefully remove gender variant people from the so-called 'women's' room.

4) Most physical and sexual assaults occur in gender segregated toilets and not in gender neutral or unisex bathrooms.

5) Gender segregated bathrooms make it difficult for fathers to take their young daughters into public toilets without evoking suspicion. (Family bathrooms often disallow adult men from entry.)

I recommend that we build gender neutral and accessible bathrooms. But I don't advocate the doing away with gendered bathrooms entirely; they are important spaces for LGBT communities. Gender is not a problem per se. Gender policing is. My wish is that we could work creatively, in gay positive and trans-positive ways with gender signage so that it prompts people to question assumptions about sex and gender identity in fun and ethical ways.

So let me add my unanimous support for C-389 and invite us all to demand access to public facilities in keeping with our gender identities!

Sheila L. Cavanagh,
Associate Professor and Sexuality Studies Program Coordinator at York University