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A safe space

Gender-neutral bathrooms can help make all students welcome in public schools

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Thirteen-year-old Alex Beakhouse doesn’t settle into the well-worn couch in the student lounge. It’s the same room in Highland Park Junior High where the Gay-Straight Alliance meets regularly. His voice is almost too quiet to hear as he talks about tolerance and a bathroom that is more than a bathroom.

He takes his time, starting and stopping, collecting his thoughts and getting them just right. “I view myself as male, so when I use the male washroom, I’m afraid people are going to make fun of me or whatever because I look like a female,” he says.

Last spring when he was in Grade 7, he approached Ann Marie Danch, an education program assistant in the school, to say he was gender-questioning and asked her help in coming out. Danch came up with the idea of a gender-neutral bathroom and the school’s administration jumped on it. They re-purposed a single staff washroom last June.

It may look like an everyday, well-used junior high school bathroom except for the sign: “Anyone can use this bathroom regardless of gender identity or expression.”

For that very reason it’s not only a sanctuary but a billboard advertising acceptance. Beakhouse recently come out as a transmale this school year.

“It’s not just like a bathroom,” says Beakhouse. “To trans people and any other gender that isn’t, like, normal it’s not just a bathroom. It’s how you see yourself.”

Using a urinal in a boy’s washroom is out of the question for Beakhouse. Before, he entered a boys’ washroom only if there was no one else there.

Fellow 13-year-old and GSA member Jessie Holmes sits next to Beakhouse on the couch. She’s far less quiet in her speech and tremendously supportive in helping Beakhouse express his story. She says the special bathroom with the paper sign on the door makes her feel like her friend is accepted.

“I’m not gender-neutral or transgender but it still felt really nice to have it there,” Holmes says. “You know when you lift off a secret off your chest it feels nice? It kind of felt like that even though I had no secret.”

Danch has some experience with kids who question their sexuality and gender: Her son is gay and she has seen a number of his friends encounter problems with coming out. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in the head of a child going through any sort of questioning because there’s enough to deal with with puberty in junior high,” she says.

A gender-neutral bathroom is an equalizer, she says, because it doesn’t matter who you are. And anyone can use that washroom, not just the kid who is transitioning or the kid who is different. “It normalizes: Everybody is just a kid,” she says.

Attitudes are changing and as long as the adults in the school are positive the kids roll with it, she adds. Previously undiscovered country, the province issued Guidelines for Supporting Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Students last winter. It’s a suggested roadmap for schools and teachers to change procedures to be more inclusive. It recommends every school have a gender-neutral bathroom.

Some schools aren’t on board. “There are still many schools we hear of that have issues where students have requested gender-neutral washrooms and ended up getting told they can use a staff washroom but they need to ask for a key and go to the other end of the school,” says Kate Shewan, executive director of The Youth Project. “That is a real problem because having to ask for a key differentiates you from everyone else and it creates issues by highlighting the differences that they’re making you use this other washroom.”

Installing gender-neutral bathrooms is done on a school-by-school basis not board wide, which doesn’t surprise Shewan. She says she always figured it would be student driven. But the guidelines are a tremendous step forward because now students, teachers and administrators have a document to point to when they want to change things, she adds.

But many school administrators and students don’t know the guidelines exist. Doug Hadley, Halifax Regional School Board spokesman, says a LGBTQ consultant held a workshop with guidance counselors and administrators to go through the guidelines and “give them some life.”

“Our schools are moving in that direction and they know their communities best and they’re establishing them as they go,” Hadley says. “It has not been a direction from the board that they must have, it’s been a learning process for the schools so we’re seeing more and more schools everyday doing that.”

SUPPORTING ALL STUDENTS

Excerpts from the Guidelines for Supporting Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Students:

• Where possible, schools should provide an easily accessible gender-neutral, single-stall washroom for use by any student who desires increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason.
• Transgender and gender-nonconforming students have the right to be addressed by their preferred name(s) and pronoun(s) that correspond to their gender identity. This is true whether or not the student has obtained legal documentation of a legal change of name or sex designation.
• To the greatest extent possible, reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by gender (e.g., avoid structuring activities based on stereotypical roles such as “boys” vs. “girls” debates or holding a “Sadie Hawkins Dance”).
• School board RCH (Race Relations, Cross Cultural Understanding and Human Rights) coordinators and other board personnel can ensure that staff is educated in anti-transphobia, in challenging gender stereotypes, and in using gender-neutral and inclusive language.

GROWING UP

Zeref Veinot was the only transgender student he knew of when he recently attended Bridgetown Regional high school. There were no designated gender-neutral bathrooms when he went to school and he was discouraged from using the male washroom.

“It wasn’t because the school and the students wouldn’t let me, it was because some anonymous parents sent me emails stating that I was an abomination and that I was to go to the washroom that I was physically assigned as,” he says. Mostly, everyone was accepting of the LGBTQ+ community but it would have made it much easier for Veinot if he had access to a gender-neutral bathroom, he says.

“It is terrifying going into a bathroom that you don’t feel comfortable in,” he says. “You don’t know if you will be harassed for it or not, but it works the other way as well: you could go to the bathroom you feel more comfortable in and be harassed because your body doesn’t match the gender of what that bathroom is meant for.”

He calls the guidelines a “wonderful start” for making schools a safer place for trans students and expects it will make a big impact, but it will be slow to change.

“We also need gender neutral change rooms for the gym where instead of getting changed in the open, you go to a stall to change,” he says. “Also I strongly believe we need to have sexuality and gender classes a mandatory credit in high school.”

He has a lot of confidence in the change he sees everywhere and expects the next generation will be even more open and tolerant.

“People aren’t as afraid any more to show who they are,” he says. “It took a long time to get to this point and we still have a ways to go, but it is getting better.”

 

Halifax Magazine invites reader comments and encourages respectful discussion; we reserve the right to remove spam and libellous or abusive comments.

  • Lisa Conrod

    Thank you so much for highlighting this issue that most people wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought to. Trans people deserve the same privacy and respect that we all expect.

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