On Aug. 29, two formerly gendered washrooms in the main concourse of the UVic Student Union Building (SUB) were reopened as multi-stall gender-inclusive washrooms, meaning any person of any perceived gender can use either space.
“The driving force behind why we are going gender inclusive is there are a lot of issues of violence against transgendered people in washrooms and difficulty for them to access or enter gendered spaces,” says Ariel Tseng, UVSS director of Finance and Operations and a member of the gender-inclusive washrooms committee. “They are also important for families, like parents who are a different gender from their children and people who have caregivers of a different gender.”
UVic is the first campus on Vancouver Island to implement the multi-stall concept for gender-inclusive washrooms. The only visible changes to the main concourse washrooms are the replacement of signs at the entrance of each bathroom as well as a partition built around the urinals in the former men’s washroom.
UVSS Chair Emily Rogers acknowledges the concept is new to many people and says a lot of people have raised concerns since the idea was presented. As a result, the Board of Directors created a committee to consult with advocacy groups, the student body and the United Steelworkers Union (the union that represents SUB workers) prior to installing the washrooms.
UVic Pride, a campus advocacy group for queer and trans* students, began a campaign for gender-inclusive washrooms in January 2011. Within the same month, a board motion was passed in which the UVSS committed to investigating the installation of gender-inclusive washrooms.
In a 2011 study through the Vancouver Island Transgender Needs Assessment project, conducted by communications and culture professor Matthew Heinz of Royal Roads University and a community advisory board, 62 per cent of the trans* and gender variant people surveyed reported avoiding public washrooms because of a fear of harassment.
According to Tseng, the common argument against multi-stall gender-inclusive washrooms, which cost the UVSS around $3 000, is that there were already single-stall gender- inclusive washrooms available, such as the wheelchair-accessible washrooms.
“The problem with going into a single-stall washroom is that a lot of people are also very policing over those spaces if you’re not seen as needing to use an accessible washroom,” he says.
Soumya Natarajan, coordinator of UVic’s Anti-Violence Project (AVP), which provides support services for students facing gender-based violence, says AVP has been supportive of the washrooms.
“We were well aware of the need for gender-inclusive washrooms as one step towards making campus safer and more accessible to all students,” she says.
The AVP website says a common myth is that violence issues for transgendered people can be solved by the creation of separate facilities specifically for transgendered people, such as a “for trans-people” space.
But the AVP says the opposite is true: “Everyone is safer when there are fewer expectations of what kind of person can use what space, especially based on appearances.”
The main washrooms were chosen, as opposed to the washrooms near Cinecenta or in Felicita’s pub, because of their visibility.
“Integrating these washrooms in a visible place increases safety for those using the washroom because it is harder for someone to harass those walking in,” says Natarajan.
Rogers adds that people will still have the choice of other washrooms if they prefer.
“If people feel uncomfortable using gender-inclusive spaces, they are welcome to use the gender-specific spaces we have in the building,” she says.
A number of university campuses in Canada have one or more gender-inclusive washrooms, including Vancouver Island University, McGill and the University of Western Ontario. Of these, most are using the term “gender neutral” instead of gender inclusive.
“I think we take a position in the committee that there’s no such thing as a neutral gender,” says Rogers.
Tseng says, “Inclusive also just seems more welcoming.”