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Universities for all genders

It may the last big human-rights issue of our age - welcoming people who identify with the sex opposite to the one they were born with.


When student Bridget Liang of Hamilton, Ontario, went shopping for a university, she chose York University, partly because of its many gender-neutral, single-stall washrooms spread around campus. Ms. Liang is a transgendered woman. For her, large public restrooms can be terrifying places, where bullies feel free to deliver dirty looks, hurtful comments, even a punch. “The bathroom is always an issue,” says Ms. Liang.

Aaron Devor, an internationally recognized expert on transgender issues, agrees. “It’s not safe to go to regular washrooms,” says Dr. Devor, who is founder and academic director of the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, a sociology professor and a transgendered man.

“Transgendered people live in a kind of terrorized state,” he says. “Every time they walk into a gendered washroom, they have to take a breath and say, ‘OK, is it going to be safe this time or is this the time it is going to happen to me?’” As a result, many transgendered people face a daily issue that Dr. Devor and others call “toilet trauma.”

Ms. Liang has no regrets choosing York more than five years ago, where she is now studying towards a master’s degree in critical disabilities. For a variety of reasons, says Ms. Liang, York is a “paradise” compared with her former Hamilton high school, Westmount Secondary – and yet that place, she says, was nicknamed “the gay school.”

York is considered a leader in trans issues (the shortened adjective is used by activists and researchers in the field), but it is just one of many universities across the country trying to make campuses more welcoming for trans students, staff and faculty. Gender-neutral washrooms and single rooms in residence – Ms. Liang was offered one in her first year – are just part of the attractions for trans students.

Many universities organize workshops for faculty, staff and student leaders to become more sensitized to the needs of the transgendered. Special logos on doors tell trans people that, in emergencies, there is a “safe space” on the other side of the door. Attempts are being made to reform record-keeping so that class lists, transcripts and other documents better reflect the preferred names and genders of trans students. Campus job ads encourage the transgendered to apply. York even offers compensation to some employees, including teaching assistants, to help pay for some medical procedures necessary when transitioning from one gender to another.

Activists say the situation for transgendered people on campuses across the country is improving. In March, for example, the University of Saskatchewan became the latest to ban discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, gender expression or two-spirit identity (the term sometimes used by LGBTQ First Nations people). “We’re definitely going in the right direction,” says Dr. Devor of UVic. “But I don’t want to paint a brighter picture than reality. There’s still a long way to go. Yes, we’re climbing out of a deep hole but we’re still in a hole.”

Administration officials with universities’ human rights and equity offices, including Jean Pfleiderer at Queen’s University and Smita Bharadia at Carleton University, say there has been progress but the situation still is not perfect. “It is often the case in a large system that it takes time to get things done,” says Dr. Pfleiderer.

The evolution of trans rights is analogous to that of gay rights in Canada. Homosexual activity was illegal in Canada until 1969. Today there is same-sex marriage. These days, momentum is building for trans rights. Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have amended their human rights acts to protect discrimination over “gender identity” or “gender preference.” School boards in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver have changed policies to make schools more welcoming for transgendered pupils. In Parliament, meanwhile, a legislative amendment that would have given more protection to transgendered people failed to pass a Senate committee by one vote.

No one knows precisely how many transgendered people are on campuses or in the general population, since statistics are not gathered. Dr. Devor says the best research he has seen estimates that transgendered people comprise between 0.5 to one percent of the general population – considerably more than some earlier estimates of one in 10,000.

The term “transgendered” encompasses a variety of gender identities. Some have had sexual reassignment surgery, others are “transitioning” towards a new sex, and yet others may simply choose to present themselves, through dress and name, in the gender opposite to that of their birth, without actually undergoing medical procedures.

There are also people who prefer to be perceived as neither male nor female. Two of the most famous Canadians in that category are writer Ivan E. Coyote and singer Rae Spoon. They eschew the use of gender-based pronouns, preferring to be called “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Using the usually plural “they” to describe one person can result in some awkward grammar that not everyone is willing to embrace. Will that ever change? Perhaps. Remember the resistance 40 years ago to the designation “Ms.?” What was once unusual is today widely accepted.

Pronouns are a big issue for trans students. Sometimes professors deliberately use a pronoun in class that does not reflect the student’s preferred name and gender. Administration-sponsored workshops to sensitize faculty to that and other transgender issues do not always result in widespread attitude changes in the classroom.

A refusal to use a student’s preferred pronoun and, by inference, the student’s preferred gender, isolates and alienates students, says Trish Salah, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg. “It effectively dehumanizes the student to have their identity disregarded in a public way and by an authority figure and someone they’re hoping to make some kind of learning connection with,” says Dr. Salah.

Some faculty also insist on calling a student by his or her birth name, even though the student has adopted a different name and gender. “It’s painful and unpleasant,” says Ms. Liang at York. “It’s something I’ve learned to put up with because there are worse things that could be happening to me.”

Official university records can present problems for trans students. Many may graduate with a different gender and name than when they started university but may not have legally changed their name. University officials say transcripts must contain a student’s legal name. However, a prospective employer may react negatively, or at least be confused, if “Mary Smith” applies for a job and her academic records call her “Bill Smith.” Such records “out” the transgendered job applicant and can lead to embarrassing job interviews. Even when names and genders are legally changed, universities can be slow to change records, say trans activists, so their different-gendered past continues to haunt them.

York is among the universities trying to find solutions to these problems, and it has made some progress. This past spring, it began the process of creating a preferred name option in its human resources records management system so that a person requesting a name change for reasons of gender identity or expression, without a legal name change, will see the preferred name used in all internal communications. “This IT olution will also permit the university to respect external legislative obligations to use the legal name where required,” says Noël Badiou, director of York’s Centre for Human Rights.

Trans faculty members face similar problems with university paperwork. Bobby Noble, a trans man and associate professor of sexuality and gender studies at York’s school of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, had a rather unusual battle with the benefits provider at York. The provider simply could not accept that Dr. Noble initially received benefits under a different name and gender. He was repeatedly asked to provide a “marriage licence” showing that he had wed the woman he used to be. “For two years, this occurred with each and every claim, even after I notified them in writing that this was not a marriage but a legal sex change.”

There are also more subtle job-related forms of discrimination faced by trans faculty, whose work and abilities can be denigrated simply because they are transgendered, say some trans professors. Dan Irving is an associate professor of sexuality studies and human rights in the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University. Dr. Irving has three degrees in political science, yet “I didn’t pursue a career in political science because that would be very difficult,” he says. “The research wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

When Dr. Irving meets with colleagues to parcel out duties, everyone assumes he will handle the “trans” angle, not “political economy” issues. This is a common refrain among trans professors. Says Dr. Salah in Winnipeg: “Minoritized people are often assumed to be experts on their identity and are not seen to know much about much else.”

A published poet, Dr. Salah has two degrees in creative writing and literature and a third in literature, but her first teaching gig was a sessional course on trans studies. “It was an exciting opportunity,” she recalls. “I was delighted to be able to design such a course. But it moved me into women’s studies and then I built a CV in some ways in gender studies.”

Dr. Salah maintains – and some trans men agree – that the lives of trans women are often harder than those of trans men. “We trans women are frequently more visible than trans men and that may mean a higher likelihood of discriminatory behaviour.”

And while today’s feminism is more inclusive of trans women than was the case 20 years ago, there is still hostility in some quarters, she says. On top of that, trans women face the same kinds of discrimination that all women face in the workplace and elsewhere.

Overriding the lives of all transgendered people is the ever-present threat of violence from aggressors. “Violence against trans people is endemic and recurrent within trans peoples’ lives,” says Dr. Salah.

Actual reported cases of physical assaults on trans students on campuses tend to be infrequent. University human rights officers say verbal abuse and name-calling are reported far more frequently, especially during frosh week. Even verbal assaults can be frightening and demoralizing and create a hostile environment for students. Ms. Liang at York recalls encountering a threatening looking man on campus one night who approached her and shouted: “What the fuck are you?” She was terrified.

Carleton’s Dr. Irving agrees that “the university remains quite a violent place.” He mentions an incident at Carleton a few years ago when a student, a trans man, entered a men’s washroom and was assaulted. “We did meet with the president of the university,” says Dr. Irving. “I took it that far. She [Roseann O’Reilly Runte] was extremely receptive to ensuring this was something that was dealt with.” Nevertheless, the trans student dropped out of university.

Trans professors say anecdotal evidence indicates the dropout rate of trans students is high at university and at high school. Similarly, unemployment and underemployment remain endemic. Some trans people are shunned by their families, become homeless and end up in sex work, unable to obtain other jobs. Some say it is this experience that has made trans women among the most vocal voices for the decriminalization of prostitution.

Transgendered activists in all fields of endeavour, from prostitution to academia and trade unions, are profiled in a new book edited by Dr. Irving and Toronto psychotherapist Rupert Raj called Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader (Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.)

In the book, the difficulties faced by trans people can be summed up in the words of Michelle Boyce, a radio broadcaster at CHRW in London, Ontario, who was born male, got married, fathered two children and then became a woman. Ms. Boyce says her problems began the moment she was born.

“I was only a second into my journey when the doctor cast a profound judgment that would set the stage for my life,” Ms. Boyce writes.

“It’s a boy!” the doctor exclaimed.

“I screamed.”

Ten Steps to Equality

What steps should universities take to respond to the needs of transgendered students, faculty and staff? York University has a reputation as a leader in these issues, so we asked Noël Badiou, director of York’s Centre for Human Rights, to provide a tip sheet. Here are his suggestions:

  1. Include language protecting gender identity and gender expression in human rights-related policies.
  2. Promote workshops or training sessions for all students, faculty and staff that enhance the knowledge, appreciation and sensitivity of issues relating to gender identity and gender expression.
  3. Create and post decals identifying safe spaces by people or offices where sensitivity training has been received.
  4. Identify single-stall washrooms and, where feasible, label them “gender neutral” with a sign on the door.
  5. Post the location of all gender-neutral washrooms on an online campus map.
  6. Offer special housing options including single rooms for people who express or identify their gender differently.
  7. Include information about these housing options in the online application forms.
  8. Where gender-neutral washrooms or change rooms are not possible because of the building’s age or structure, sensitize staff and clients to the right of individuals identifying their gender differently to use the washroom or change room that they feel most comfortable with.
  9. Create a protocol, where possible, to permit individuals to state a preferred name and/or gender in university records.
  10. Include provisions for medical coverage in health plans for those involved in gender transitioning.
Paul Gessell
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  1. Jude Tate / September 10, 2014 at 13:37

    I served as the Sexual & Gender Diversity Officer for 12 years at the University of Toronto where I and colleagues worked to reduce the barriers in the working, learning, and living environments for trans identified and other gender non-conforming people. Physical amenities like gender neutral washrooms that are visible and accessible in every building are essential. However, it is within the learning and working environments for students and employees where university administrators and faculty members can make a real impact through proactive policies and practices in and outside the classroom. A leader in this area, University of Toronto developed ground-breaking change of name and gender policies for its’ students years ahead of most universities and changes in the provincial human rights laws. Through education and leadership, our university and college campuses can live up to their “we’re diverse and inclusive” rhetoric to lead the change for every student and employee including gender non-comforming and trans identified students, staff and faculty to thrive.

    Jude Tate Ph.D.

    University of British Columbia

  2. Neil Thomlinson / September 10, 2014 at 13:59

    I don’t want to take anything away from the substance of this article, which is that trans folk are often not treated very well by institutions of higher learning.

    I must, however, protest the subheading on the article, which may not have been written by the article author. Have we really reached the point where we can no longer use the word SEX to describe biological attributes with which one is born (however much they might mis-match the psyche with which one is also born)? Have we reduced the word SEX to describe only sexual intercourse?

    Have we, meanwhile, accepted a use of GENDER that conflates biology, societal conditioning, and the identity issues that can operate in tandem with both? When various forms ask me to declare my “gender,” I would like the option of assigning percentages to “M” and “F.”

    My serious point is that, without language to describe the difference, we lose the ability to talk about the difference. I a journal serving a university audience to know the difference between sex and gender, and NOT to talk about people being BORN with a gender.

  3. Editor, University Affairs / September 10, 2014 at 14:11

    From the editor: Neil Thomlinson is correct. We have changed the word in the sub-heading to “sex” from “gender.”

  4. Loranna Laing / September 10, 2014 at 17:03

    I’m still amazed in this day and age that we are still treating others just because they are “different!” As one who has a brother-in-law who is bisexual (and a UoS Alumnus)I’ve seen the abuse and discrimination he’s been subjected to starting with my own mother-in-law. My husband and I were overjoyed when he and his partner were able to be married this summer in Rochester, NY and had immediately made plans to attend to help them celebrate. While his mother attended she told him quite bluntly she doesn’t agree with his lifestyle or choice of partner. Why she attended still puzzles us but the look on her face during the ceremony gave her away so she let the proverbial “cat was out of the bag” anyway to their friends. While my brother-in-law was married for twenty years with 2 sons both his former spouse and the boys have been totally supportive of him. How could they not if they love him? Oh wait shouldn’t his own mother be more accepting. When our two sons were in their mid teens we used to tell them we would always love them unconditionally no matter what. One evening at supper I said this yet again and our younger son replied, “Mom we aren’t gay!” We laughed but again reinforced it wouldn’t matter to either of their parents what their sexuality was or who they chose as a partner. Well maybe a few exceptions. (ha, ha) So my point is we were all created different so relish and rejoice in those differences instead of hating those who society points at as being different from the so called norm. (apologies in advance for any grammar errors or run on sentences. I do have a tendency to be verbose.)

  5. Megan / September 11, 2014 at 15:35

    It’s “transgender” not “transgendered”. That’s like saying “coloured people” instead of “people of colour”.

    It’s offensive, minor though it is.