Special report: Gender neutral conversation shifting into drive

Vancouver Island schools have not traditionally been a welcoming place for transgender students but that may be changing

Vancouver Island University transgender student Alec Hauser says the university environment has been more accepting of who he is than what he experienced going to high school in Campbell River.

Let’s start in the washroom because it is a place to which we all can relate.

A private place. A vulnerable place. A place where most people like things to be just-so.

Many of us have gone far out of our way at some point in our lives to find a washroom we are comfortable in.

Imagine being a boy forced to spend six hours a day in a workplace where the only place you could go to relieve yourself was a women’s communal washroom.

Welcome to what was until very recently a daily fact of life for Vancouver Island transgender students.

 

Washroom accessibility is a relatively minor item in the litany of barriers people like Alec Hauser face while growing up.

A first-year Vancouver Island University student, he was born female, but has transitioned to male.

High school in Campbell River was a lonely, hard experience.

“It was very difficult. It was very much a closed-minded community,” he said. “I was around 14 when I started to question my identity. It was very difficult to transition.”

Hauser says the more he tried to express who he was and how he was feeling, the more the community pressed back. He felt like he was something outside his school’s experience and many people were ill-prepared on how to react.

He lost friends. Some classmates and school staff members questioned his behaviour. Again and again the people around him said he was being obstinate, or going through a phase, or making a spectacle of himself.

“Some were very accepting. Some thought I was trying to get attention. I was very alone,” he said. “Gym class was a very difficult time. People were very confused.”

Born a boy, Harriette Cunningham has identified herself as female for as long as she can remember. Now in Grade 7 and preparing to move into high school, the Comox 12-year-old started telling people she was a girl in Grade 2. She grew her hair and started wearing dresses.

Outside of class, counsellors pointed accusatory fingers at her relationship with her mom, told the family to only indulge her feminine behaviour behind closed doors, or simply to just treat her like a boy.

In class, she was told to use the staff washrooms. People would aggressively ask ‘what are you?’ She got called derogatory names like ‘he/she’ and was ‘outed’ to new classmates.

She recalls complaining to officials about this treatment and hearing the response “well, it’s sorta true.”

An ironic chuckle escapes her father Colin’s lips as he recalls the pressures his daughter was under to conform and the misconceptions about her motivation or her authenticity.

No one, he said, chooses that as a way to get on the Grade 7 girls basketball team.

“She has a better idea of who she is than I did at that age,” he said.

Hauser is measured and articulate when speaking about his experiences, but says don’t mistake his self-control for a lack of pain. He said the pain drove him to drop out of school for an extended period, created anxiety issues and led to a suicide attempt.

“I try very, very hard to put a positive face on it,” he said. “Transgender students need a lot of support and a lot of help.”

 

In its simplest form, transgender means a person whose sex and gender don’t match — the sexual organs they were born with don’t correspond with their personal identity.

About one in every 200 people identifies as transgender and some will express that almost as soon as they are able to speak. Some will do nothing overt to state their identity. Some change their clothing, their names, or their lives. Some seek medical intervention.

“You aren’t going to identify people as trans by looking at them. What they have in common is that they feel the gender they were assigned at birth is not the gender they feel themselves to be,” Aaron Devor said. “(They are) rebelling against being put into the wrong coloured box.”

Devor is a University of Victoria sociologist who made international headlines in January when he was named the world’s first chair of transgender studies. He is an international expert on the subject and cites some troubling statistics.

A 2014 American study by the Williams Institute concluded 41 per cent of trans adults had attempted suicide, compared to 4.6 per cent of the general population.

Another study suggests those numbers have a lot to do with how people react to those who come out. The Ontario-based TransPulse project’s 2012 survey studied transgender people between the ages of 16 and 24. It found 57 per cent of those with unsupportive parents had made a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to just four per cent of those who described their parents as very supportive.

Families like the Cunninghams, who have embraced Harriette, and helped empower her social justice efforts, remain more the exception. Historically, parents have dismissed or resisted the message. Until very recently, virtually everyone who expressed transgender feelings was told they were crazy.

“If they persisted, it was addressed forcefully,” Devor said — whether through trips to the psychologist or through beatings.

The aftermath of family rejection often played out in various forms of substance abuse and self-abuse and sent people underground.

“For many trans people, puberty is a crisis point,” Devor said. “These people will have a crisis point where the body starts to transform itself into the wrong kind of adult person.”

That feeling of “other” manifests itself very easily in a public school system rooted in a binary definition of gender.

“It starts with a ‘good morning boys and girls’ and moves to boys’ and girls’ washrooms and gym classes,” Devor said.

The Hauser and Cunningham experiences show those divisions remain evident, despite what every person interviewed for this story acknowledged as a real effort for change.

“I’m very encouraged to see that the school is taking steps to work with (transgender people),” Devor said. “There is a lot of good will. Unfortunately, it is often combined with a lot of ignorance about what are the right steps to take. (But) it is an encouraging environment.”

 

Gender-neutral washrooms are now in place in every school in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District, and have been since last summer.

That wasn’t the case 14 years ago when a bitter controversy erupted about a male-to-female transgender student using the girls washroom at Nanaimo District Secondary School.

“A student was transitioning. Parents were very afraid that this person was using a washroom that wasn’t their gender,” assistant superintendent Bob Esliger said.

The district supported the student’s choice, but the passion kindled by that incident caused it to re-examine its gender policies and what education was needed to reinforce those policies. The decision to provide gender-neutral washrooms in every school was made two years ago and implemented relatively quickly.

Esliger said the way the washrooms were selected and why they were selected was just as important as their actual arrival.

washroom photo“It’s a consultative process with the staff. We don’t want to just pass over the washroom — that is the conversation itself. It is an opportunity to address issues and shift thinking.”

Other Vancouver Island school districts have taken steps to provide gender-neutral washrooms — Cowichan has a policy in place calling for one in each school — but Nanaimo was the only district that confirmed to Black Press it is providing one in every learning centre.

Though usually well-intended, gender-neutral washrooms don’t always work. Hauser said there was one in his school, Carihi, but it was in a remote area and behind a locked door.

“Unfortunately, it was very difficult to access. I never knew who to talk to to get a key,” he said.

But even as districts work to address potholes of that nature, the community seems ready to accept the change in a way it was not in 2002.

“There has been no pushback,” Esliger said. “That incident got enough play that it really caused people to think.”

According to Devor, chances are good the parental fear for their daughters surrounding the NDSS situation 14 years ago was unfounded anyway.

“The reality is it’s the trans kids who get assaulted in washrooms and locker rooms,” he said.

 

But this issue is not just about washrooms.

For Esliger and educators like him the goal is about fostering a climate that is “respectful, accepting, safe and supportive” of all students and employees. A 2013 study of B.C. schools by the McCreary Centre found 19 per cent of students identify themselves as other than heterosexual.

Alberta recently issued a policy stating “gender-diverse students and teachers should be able to choose which school bathrooms they want to use, as well as the names, pronouns and clothing that represent their gender identity.”

The B.C. government has no official gender policy, but supplied Black Press with a statement that it supports districts that “have implemented LGBTQ-specific policies and continue to encourage educators to engage students to better understand issues confronting LGBTQ youth.”

The Saanich, Cowichan, Alberni and Comox districts have detailed gender policies in place. Sooke has a less detailed policy. Campbell River makes a brief reference to gender in its diversity policy and is considering a review. Qualicum has no specific policy. Victoria is drafting one and North Island did not respond to a Black Press inquiry on the issue.

Nanaimo has been working on a detailed new policy expected to be ready for September. It will create standards for things like overnight sports trips, field trips, locker room use, pronouns and dress.

District student registration forms already give parents a choice of male/female/other, instead of the traditional boy/girl.

Student advocacy groups in most Nanaimo district high schools are part of a concerted district effort to change binary signage, challenge gender assumptions and make all documents inclusive.

”What it does is create a caring and inclusive environment,” Esliger said. “In your classrooms you have to include everyone.”

Colin Cunningham said Harriette switched schools in Grade 6 due to ongoing issues in her previous school. Her experiences in her current school have been much improved. He credits the principal for setting a welcoming tone and making sure it carried through the staff and the student body.

“By the time he met us, he was already up to speed on the issue,” he said. “I’ll never forget he said ‘thank you for putting your trust in us.’”

 

Despite her young age, Harriette has become an advocate for transgender rights, speaking to school assemblies, university classes and the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on the issue. In 2014, her lobbying helped change B.C. laws. As a result, she now has a birth certificate that identifies her as female.

Her father said society spends a lot of time encouraging people to find themselves and be themselves, but those messages seem to fall by the wayside when it comes to transgender children.

Initially uncomfortable with his family stepping into the public spotlight, Colin said it was his daughter who convinced him that someone had to speak up.

“She said ‘way too many people don’t understand and I want to help people ,’” he said.

“In the last generation, gay and lesbian (people) made a lot of progress. The previous generation made a case with race. The ultimate goal is that these are not issues any more.”

Hauser is carving a home for himself at VIU, where people seem more matter-of-fact about who he is and he doesn’t have to scramble around for a key to the washroom.

“It’s a nice atmosphere. The university is so much more accepting,” he said.

Devor said he would like to remind everybody that in these issues, as in all things, we should always lead with kindness and generosity.

“My advice is to give your children as much room as they can and not encourage them to fit into a box, or discourage them from trying things that are not in the box. I don’t think humanity is pink and blue, I think humanity is a rainbow.”

Esliger acknowledges the system still has a lot of ground to cover before every student with two mothers feels comfortable coming to class on Mother’s Day and every transgender student can go to the washroom without carrying a hint of doubt or fear.

Experience has shown him how attitudes can change and acceptance can be learned through persistence and education.

“It’s the adult in the room that has the issues, not the kids. We’ve come light years in terms of acceptance and understanding, but we can’t ever assume that everyone understands,” he said.

“There are cultures on this planet where none of this matters. Everybody has used a gender neutral washroom. It is the one in your house.”

 

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