Neutralizing Bathrooms

By Veronica Chavez

Transgender flag. Photo courtesy of torbakhopper.

It is no secret that transgender individuals face a tremendous amount of discrimination and prejudice, sometimes even to the point of death.

According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. This figure increased for respondents who lost a job due to bias, were harassed or bullied in school, had low household income, or were the victim of a physical or sexual assault.

While some states and provinces in the US and Canada have implemented laws protecting the human rights of transgender individuals, discrimination still occurs on a daily basis in many locations, institutions, and everyday facilities.

Restrooms and public sex-specified facilities such as locker rooms can be especially tricky for transgender people.

As such, during the transitory period in which individuals who were born male begin to exhibit a more feminine persona, or vice versa, as expected they also wish to use facilities pertaining to their new gender identity.

Those who wish to use facilities according to the gender they associate with, as opposed to the biological sex they were born with, are often met with harassment, denied entrance, and are even assaulted.

In response to the harassment, many American colleges, universities, workplaces, and city-run facilities have implemented “gender-neutral bathrooms.” In these places, individuals of any gender can utilize the restroom and feel safe.

However, not all states have been as accommodating. In fact, a number of representatives are lobbying to make it a crime for transgender people to use single-sex public bathrooms that correspond with their gender as opposed to the physical anatomy of their sex.

In Florida, for example, representative Frank Artiles introduced the Single-Sex Public Facilities Act. Individuals who violate the law would face a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

A similar amendment might also pass in Canada. Bill C-279 was technically introduced to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include protections for the trans community.

The bill’s focus however, shifted greatly, with many concerns circulating that the use of facilities by transgender people will be problematic. This restroom issue has become such a focal point that the amendment is now frequently referred to as “the bathroom bill.” GLAAD describes the reference as a defamatory “term created and used by far-right extremists to oppose non-discrimination laws that protect transgender people.”

Bill C-279 has circulated within the Canadian Parliament for four years now. Although it successfully completed the first step in becoming a law, the bill still has to go through Senate.

Currently, there is one senator who is opposed to the bill: Don Plett of Manitoba.

“Plett is in the position to delay, delay, delay,” explains Amanda Ryan of advocacy group Gender Mosaic.

Ryan tells BTR that “if he delays long enough, the bill dies, so that’s what he’s been doing.”

Plett, similarly to Floridian representative Frank Artiles, argues that amendments such as Bill C-279 might be used as a “loophole” for people who wish to spy on members of the opposite sex.

Ryan points out that there is currently no documented case in the US or Canada of a trans person attacking someone else in a restroom.

“I’m sure that [Plett] feels he is doing the right thing, trying to protect women and all,” Ryan reasons, “but it’s really a chauvinistic point of view that he has because women can take care of themselves. The laws do not have to reflect bathroom fears, the laws need to reflect discrimination protection for the trans community.”

Gender Mosaic is Canada’s oldest and largest transgender support group. In the past, its members usually stayed pretty quiet in the political sphere, and mostly kept to offering peer-to-peer services.

However, when Bill C-279 went through Parliament, the group decided they needed to step up and play a more prominent role in support for its proposals.

Gender Mosaic teamed up with TransEquality Canada, another advocacy organization, in order to meet with several senators to discuss issues prevalent in the trans community as well as the intricacies of the bill. The organizations’ collective goal is to attain “intelligent votes” from senators that understand that the legislation reaches far beyond “bathroom discrimination.”

While Gender Mosaic has done much of its campaigning by meeting with senators and participating in television interviews, members of the Canadian trans community have also participated at the grassroots level.

One trans woman’s “selfie campaign” aimed to highlight the ridiculousness of the bill’s amendment went especially viral. Ryan also mentions that many mothers have been sending pictures of their transgender children using their sex-assigned bathrooms to Senator Plett.

Although Ryan admits that the bill will most likely not become a law in the near future since the upcoming election will most likely “wipe it out,” she is happy that the Bill has gained media attention for the trans community.

Senator Plett, she continues, “may not have known what he was doing at the time but he was doing us a huge favor.” Even if the bill does not pass, attitudes have changed as a result.

For now, it seems transgender legislation will have to move forward on a more provincial basis.