3 min

Washrooms for everyone

Genderless toilets coming to Simon Fraser University?

Credit: Stephen Hui

Transgender-friendly washrooms could be coming soon to Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Students calling for the installation of gender-free washrooms at SFU say the current system of women’s and men’s facilities excludes some transgender, intersex and gender-queer persons. They say their concerns are being heard by administrators, and they are optimistic the university will take action.

“Gendering spaces excludes people,” says Louis Julig, a transgender student at the university and former student union executive.

For Julig, the “trans” in “transgender” is short for “transcending.” The former student union executive does not identify with any particular gender.

“I know that when I go to use a washroom on campus that’s gendered, it’s a serious inconvenience in my day, and it’s very stressful,” Julig says. “I don’t know how many other people have that sort of experience when they go to the washroom.”

The current proposal is to turn every single-stall washroom on campus into a safe, genderless facility. Converting such a washroom would only entail a change of signage and the installation of a locking door. Proponents argue that there is no need for a “one-holer” to be gender-specific anyway.

But this campaign isn’t just about creating inclusive spaces for gender-variant people, Julig notes; it’s about challenging the binary gender system as a whole. That’s why Julig doesn’t want to simply re-label the new washrooms with male and female pictograms, like some of the single-stall, unisex washrooms accessible to people with disabilities. Julig wants the new trans-friendly washrooms to be identified by the word “washroom.”

If the university accepts this proposal, it could set a new trend in gender-free washrooms on campuses across Canada.

According to Julig, the university has at least one incentive to install the genderless washrooms-human rights law. According to a 1999 ruling by the BC Human Rights Tribunal, transsexuals living full-time in their “desired sex” should have access to appropriate washrooms; to deny them such access constitutes discrimination.

Discussions around the need for gender-neutral washrooms at SFU began last fall. A bathroom committee formed to research the issue and gather feedback from students. Then the student union began talking with the university’s human rights coordinator about how the washrooms might be implemented. Now the bathroom committee is in the process of educating students.

Julig acknowledges that, at first, some people might feel awkward using a non-gendered washroom.

“I think we need to make these changes in the single-stall washrooms, and then keep moving forward, so that we get more washrooms that are gender-neutral-so that people don’t feel uncomfortable using them,” Julig says. “And that will ensure that trans people using these washrooms do not feel singled out.”

Helen Leung, an assistant professor of women’s studies and member of the Queer Faculty Network at SFU, says she “strongly supports” the students’ initiative. Many people take the privilege of urinating in relative comfort for granted, she says.

Tim Rahilly, the university’s director of student development and programming, says the university needs to create spaces for people who don’t conform to the mainstream system of two genders. Before coming to SFU last year, he was involved with the Positive Space Campaign at the University of British Columbia, which aims to increase the visibility of safe spaces for queers on campus.

“It goes well beyond washrooms,” Rahilly said. “I think washrooms are just the beginning of this-the tip of the iceberg.”

Jack Bates has lived for four years in one of two co-ed residences at SFU that already have gender-neutral washrooms with multiple stalls. Often students and their parents are surprised upon seeing the facilities for the first time, Bates says. But typically, students become comfortable with using the washrooms rather quickly.

A spokesperson for the university says that until students submit a proposal to convert specific washrooms, the administration is not prepared to officially respond to the issue.

“The university is certainly supportive of the research that’s being done,” Kathryn Aberle says. “And when there is a proposal to consider, we will absolutely consider it.”

Proponents hope the first gender-neutral washroom will be installed on campus soon. Their ultimate goal is to have genderless facilities within a two-minute walk of anywhere on campus.