Change the sign, change the conversation

All-gender washrooms have been on Durham College’s campus for about a year now. The term “all-gender” was given careful consideration to make the most inclusive statement.

For the purposes of this article, the term “trans” umbrellas anyone who identifies differently from the gender they were assigned with at birth, including transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender fluid, intersex and gender non-conforming, as defined by the Trans Needs Assessment Report. The gender-neutral pronoun “they” is used in place of traditional male/female.

A trans person forced to decide between using a male or female washroom may hardly seem like a serious issue compared to soaring rates of suicide and depression in the LGBTQ community. However, it is small moments like these for a group striving for acceptance that are connected to those bigger-picture issues.

“Because we’re still living in spaces that are very binary, male or female, we have to consider other people who don’t necessarily fit within those constructs,” Allison Hector-Alexander, Durham College’s diversity officer said.

Imbyr Montgomery is a first-year pre-health nursing student at Durham College who recently became Alexander’s assistant. Montgomery doesn’t associate with a male or female identity, using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ to describe them.

Montgomery stands by the piano in The Pit, the main entrance to the Gordon Willey building. The closest all-gender washroom is a tie between the C-Wing and SW. Both only take a minute to walk to.

It would be a bit more of a trek if a person wanting to use the facilities were in the Simcoe building.

There are ten all-gender washrooms at Durham College. Eight are on Oshawa’s main campus, four of which are in residences, and two more are at the Whitby campus, according to the Durham College website.

Previous single-user accessible washroom signs were simply replaced and upgraded to be more inclusive. This included updating campus maps to highlight the locations.

The term “all-gender” on the signs was given careful consideration with a lot of consultation from LGBTQ-supporting agencies, Alexander said. The phrase was handpicked from the many accepted terms that could be used including gender-neutral, unisex, or gender inclusive washroom.

“I think that it’s positive simply because it encompasses all genders and it doesn’t make a restriction,” Montgomery said. “It’s important to recognize there are more than two genders.”

Anybody can use the all-gender washrooms on campus unlike the Winnipeg elementary school that came under scrutiny last October. An eight-year-old transgender student was told to use the school’s gender-neutral washroom after a complaint was filed from a parent of another student.

Alexander said the student feedback at Durham College has been encouraging. She’s been following conversations on social media. Some students have a lot of questions while others are expressing gratitude and sharing their personal experiences.

All-gender washrooms have been on campus for about a year now. The timing of the initiative aligned well with the Ontario Human Rights Commission releasing a policy on preventing discrimination because of gender identity and gender expression last June.

“I wouldn’t say we’re ahead of the curve, but I’m not going to say that we were so far behind either,” Alexander said about Durham College compared to other post-secondary institutions.

Some Canadian colleges and universities have incorporated all-gender washrooms on their campus while others have yet to get on board.

But Montgomery thinks the school can do better.

“I think that when it comes to trans and gender-variant issues, the school is lagging behind a lot,” Montgomery said. “As are many schools.”

Montgomery said while it’s important to have outreach services, a diversity officer, and support talks, they wish there was more representation of the LGBTQ community within those groups.

The National Trans Needs Assessment Survey (NTNAS) developed by The Canadian AIDS Society and National Community Advisory Committee found respondents listed “more public education to understand and accept trans people” as one of the most pressing needs in their communities.

“As a trans and queer person, I always wish there was more stuff for me, but it’s not always the reality in smaller regions,” Montgomery said.

The NTNAS found more than half of the respondents rated teachers as “very supportive,” and one quarter said classmates were “very supportive.”

Montgomery is currently researching ways to implement preferred names and pronouns into everyday campus life, especially in classrooms.

“Your (birth) name is still on the class list… and on your e-mail, so that can be kind of confusing if you’re trying to live in your reality but yet you have to constantly have your legal name there,” Montgomery explained.

Most people get to live their reality without glaring disruptions throughout the day while others have to make several tough decisions and discoveries about theirs. Something as simple as changing the language on a washroom sign can change a much bigger conversation.

“(DC) is trying to make real steps towards inclusion,” Montgomery acknowledged. “It just takes time and effort.”