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Gender neutral washrooms, special shelters are temporary solutions

...long-term there must be a much greater emphasis taken by all levels of society toward advocacy.

The Society for Safe Accommodations for Queer Edmonton Youth (SAFQEY) is continuing it’s online GoFundMe campaign in hopes of raising $100,000, which will go toward a specialized shelter to support homeless LGBTQ youth. And late last year Alberta’s education minister David Eggen announced all 61 school divisions across the province need draft policies ensuring safe, caring and welcoming environments are a reality in schools for LGBTQ students and staff, by the end of March.

Recently the issues in schools were once again pushed to the forefront, following a seven-year-old transgender student’s plight to use the girls washroom in school, once again kicking up dust around the concept of gender neutral washrooms. SAFQEY is a grassroots organization that started in 2014 and this specialized shelter would be a pilot project, the first of its kind in Alberta. But this sub-form of semi-voluntary segregation should not be viewed as a positive long-term solution.

In Edmonton, 2015, a seven-year-old Catholic student wanted to use the girls washroom at school rather than the gender neutral one, as she didn’t want to be singled out or stand out over the issue. During the fall of 2015, Morinville Community Catholic High School stated it was planning to make the majority of its washrooms gender neutral a move apparently in the works since earlier that spring. It’s a move the school is hoping will help the students feel more comfortable and supported while being true to themselves.

So while some students seem happy with the concept of gender neutral washrooms it seems others want to be supported in a more traditional manner, able to more fully immerse themselves in the culture of the gender they identify with. While tackling this issue school boards are going to have to keep both in mind. School divisions developing policies must follow guidelines that will allow the students to use the washrooms that correspond with the gender they identify with. As well, they are meant to be able to dress and play on sports teams aligning with that gender, and choose pronouns they identify with and how they’re recognized on official school documents. The minister and the guidelines go on to say school activities segregated by gender should be reduced as much as possible.

While the controversy surrounding the gender neutral washrooms, school boards and SAFQEY’s fundraiser are rising along the same recent timeline, the idea of unisex and gender neutral washrooms has been around in the United States for longer. According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s LGBTQ organization the Stonewall Center, by July 2014 more than 150 across the United States were using gender neutral washrooms.

The Transgender Law Center, a civil rights organization, states, in the past, transgender students have been barred from using washrooms congruent with their identified gender while at school, as well as attacked and harassed in other public restrooms. The Transgender Law Center published “Peeing in Peace” back in 2005. The document outlines the issues at hand, the legal landscape, historical bathroom activism, violence (and how to handle and prevent it), potential ideas, and challenging and changing bathroom environments.

The law center feels gender neutral washrooms are critical because forcing LGBTQ youth to use traditionally gendered washrooms will “out” them to their peers, threatening to create negative experiences. The full definition of segregation, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a) “the separation or isolation of a race, class or ethnic group by forced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities or by other discriminatory means” and b) “the separation for special treatment or observation of individuals or items from a larger group.”

While woefully needed at this point in time, this form of segregation has the potential to lead to a strengthened unity among those facing similar deplorable treatment, which in itself is not a negative. But feeling confident this kind of separation can be a lasting solution is disillusioned. For example, with the gender neutral washrooms it may remove LGBTQ youth from the traditional bathroom setting but that’s the only situation directly affected. Unfortunately, if others want to bully and harass them they’re going to find a way, whether it be in the halls, on teams, outside of school or online. Without increased attention on advocacy to counter a division between the groups a lack of communications and perceived commonalities could create turf issues and an even greater “us versus them” mentality.

A documentary called For Want of a Home, telling the story of transgender Edmonton youth who’ve experienced homelessness, is part of SAFQEY’s campaign. According to the documentary, 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth in North America are LGBTQ and of that group 60 per cent attempt suicide. “FTMs (female to male) expressed fears of violence when staying in men’s shelters and fears their male identity and personal dignity would be judged and ridiculed in women’s shelters,” Denomme-Welch, Pyne and Scanlon, states For Want of a Home. During the film one FTM youth stated going to the bathroom, how they’d be treated and which one to use were consistent concerns. Another chose couch-surfing and staying in overcrowded or illegal suites over going to a shelter because of concerns for safety.

While the need for facilities such as gender neutral washrooms and separate shelters is heartrendingly real, such actions do not come without their own issues and concerns. Whatever efforts put into projects such as those need to be exponentially increased in terms of advocacy efforts and changing the social collective. Without the primary efforts to shift the population’s mentality to the fact the LGBTQ community has the right to equal treatment as human beings and that who they are doesn’t make them less of a person or someone to shame, a long-term division will breed even more ignorance, unfamiliarity and misunderstanding.

Despite the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that quickly to mind under the term segregation, and of course the segregated ghettos used during the Second World War, such as in the Polish capital Warsaw, Canada is not blameless when it comes to segregation efforts and our people are as susceptible to discrimination as the rest of the world. While not everyone now or in the future is going to negatively view LGBTQ people there are, unfortunately, those that already do and some are dominated by the crowd mentality.

Tamara Avant, psychology program director at South University Savannah, suggests when people are part of a crowd they can experience charged emotional excitement as well as deindividuation, causing them to be less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions. Avant adds the size of the mob and anonymity lend themselves to escalated violence because people believe they’re able to transfer responsibility to the group and off themselves.

Time and time again throughout history humanity has shown instincts will lead a more dominant group to unified oppression of a scapegoat. In times of strife or economic downturn people become unreasonable and absurd in a self-justified act of preservation. The atrocious amount of crime across the province right now highlights that.

Inevitable future recessions will cause the same human behaviors and without a shift in the social collective it’s going to leave projects such as shelters for homeless LGBTQ youth as a target for rage due to the funds and other resources needed to sustain them, from a majority that never evolved.

Using a state of segregation too long will also cause people to become comfortable with the division as a norm; desegregation is not without it’s own problems. History has shown disobedience, contempt, bullying, vandalism, assault and other forms of systematic violence arise when what’s become common and comfortable are taken away and divided groups are mashed back together.

At the forefront, safety, stability and support needs have to be met but long-term there must be a much greater emphasis taken by all levels of society toward advocacy. Just as other forms of intolerance are still prevalent in today’s society it is unreasonable to expect everyone everywhere will become accepting. But when a majority can open their hearts and minds to what’s right then we as a society can finally progress past reactive, gatekeeping actions such as special washrooms and shelters.

Amelia Naismith is the new reporter for the Leduc/Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.