Michelle Rayner says she didn’t intend to become a campus spokesperson for transgendered rights at St Thomas University (STU), but she still drew a crowd of supporters to a Nov 25 rally against violence and discrimination.
Rayner, who also goes by Mitch, began speaking to media earlier in November about an assault she says happened after a woman mistook her for a man trying to use the women’s washroom. She declined to take the allegation up with campus security, but she said the school’s lack of gender-neutral washrooms put her at risk.
She previously told Xtra she didn’t follow up on the alleged assault because she wanted people to discuss trans-awareness, not just the incident. Judging from the 100-person crowd that turned out for the rally, Rayner got her wish.
“After years of feeling like you’re alone, going through things on a daily basis … people not liking who you are or what you stand for, seeing a group of people out here to celebrate that is intense,” she says.
Student and community groups quickly got behind Rayner, but there was still confusion about the facilities already available and the university administration’s efforts to address Rayner’s problem.
One speaker at the rally alleged the university was trying to save face, saying, “it doesn’t look very good for the university, when there are headlines in the newspaper about a student being assaulted for using the washroom.”
As the crowd chanted “Gender freedom, gender rights, we will piss and we will fight,” Jeffrey Carleton, STU’s director of communications, told Xtra he is frustrated by the accusation.
“I’m disappointed to hear that, because there has been absolutely no attempt by the university to be anything but open,” he says. “That’s everything from reaching out to the student many times, reaching out to the different groups and dealing with every media request that comes out.”
Still, Carleton applauds the open dialogue about discrimination on campus and beyond, saying the rally “was quite moving.”
The focus of the washroom debate has changed a number of times. Originally, Rayner said she was pushing for more gender-neutral toilets, but now that it’s clear most of the university’s buildings have at least one – in some cases many – trans-friendly facilities, she says people need to know they exist.
According to Carleton, it took more than a week after Rayner’s story broke in the mainstream media for Rayner to finally meet with the STU administrators. But, after chats with STU dean of students Larry Batt and president Dennis Cochrane, Rayner says she’s working on a proposal and reaching out to other transgendered students to share their input on how the university could be more trans-inclusive.
Others say the discussion at STU should be community-wide. Debi Skidmore, a Fredericton Pride committee member, says, “speaking as a mother,” the public school system is guilty of creating gender-based discrimination.
Her son was often mistaken for a girl in his early school years, she says, because of his long hair. At one point a teacher even confronted Skidmore about his perceived feminine appearance.
“She had tears in her eyes, telling us that some people still thought he was a girl and could we not make him cut his hair to make him look more like a boy because she was worried about the long-term effects,” she says.
She says incidents like that and what happened to Rayner all boil down to people being afraid of differences.