Michelle Rayner’s first day of classes at Fredericton’s St Thomas University (STU) was meant to be a new beginning. Instead, she started her first year off, on Sept 13, with a punch in the face after entering a women’s washroom on campus. The alleged assailant thought she was a man.
The 22-year-old Rayner describes herself as androgynous and identifies as transgendered. So, she says, a quick trip to the toilet isn’t so simple in a world of gender-designated lavatories.
“It’s kind of an anxious part of the day, for something that should be so normal,” she explains. “Anyone that is androgynous, we deal with that on a daily basis.”
Rayner wants the university to rethink gender policies concerning the school’s facilities and provide gender-neutral toilets, but the administration is in the dark this week as she speaks principally to local media.
“We were only made aware of this yesterday [Wednesday, Nov 10] afternoon,” says STU’s director of communications. That was when a press release, sent by Rob Frenette, Rayner’s “publicist” and the co-founder of bullyingcanada.ca, arrived in inboxes at media outlets around the city.
STU spokesperson Jeffrey Carleton insists the administration wants to be a part of this dialogue to assure all students are safe and comfortable on campus.
“What we have to do as an administration is meet with the victim in this circumstance and make sure we understand her story and see how we’re going to go from there,” he says.
STU already has private gender-neutral washrooms, Carleton says, which the university installed in George Martin Hall as the school year began. The move was part of refurbishing the building, not because of any complaints.
In fact, at post time Rayner had not filed formal complaints about the alleged assault with either the university or campus security. She says she thinks doing so would detract from the gender-neutrality discussion.
The title of Frenette’s press release is “STU Female Student Physically Assaulted For Using Ladies’ Washroom.” Media jumped on the story, and it has been profiled on several outlets, including CTV and CBC television.
The assault may not be the desired focus of Rayner’s conversation, but it is certainly the catalyst.
“My point of coming out with this was never to come after the student who took a swing at me or to come after the university because they weren’t as prepared gender-wise as they should be,” says Rayner.
After speaking with Xtra, Carleton had facilities supervisor Dave Dunbar do an audit of all university toilets. Carleton has a long list of private, lockable washrooms on the campus – 29 to be precise, 15 of which are unisex.
The only building that didn’t have one was James Dunn Hall (JDH), which is where Rayner attends all of her classes. She says it’s unfair for her to have to traverse the campus to use a washroom she feels is safe.
She still uses the same women’s washroom on the top floor of JDH where the alleged assault took place, but the two closest academic buildings with unisex toilets, Carleton says, are approximately 100 feet from the front doors of JDH.
The administration is “concerned” about talk of an attack on campus, Carleton says, but it took until Friday afternoon, Nov 12, for the school to reach Rayner. Carleton says no meeting was set because Rayner said she was “indisposed,” but Rayner and Frenette were interviewed on the CBC the same day.
Reporters, including this one, have had no trouble lining up meetings with Rayner. A message to Frenette on Nov 10 was returned by Rayner within five minutes.
“The reason I suggested she go to the media was to get the ball rolling,” Frenette wrote in an email interview. “Since she contacted media, people have come to support Michelle. When I spoke out on the issue of bullying, I contacted the media first. And doing so was the best thing for me.”
He supports Rayner’s attempts to dissuade talk of the attack. But another email, circulated on the evening of Nov 11, proposes a rally “in response to an attack on Michelle Rayner.”