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Esquimalt High unveils gender neutral washroom

Affected students more comfortable with new setup
Katie Costas (left) and Morgan Armstrong show off Esquimalt High School’s first gender neutral washroom. Contributed photo.

Growing up, Morgan Armstrong never quite felt comfortable in his own skin.

But it wasn’t until he hit puberty when Armstrong started developing as a female that he began to realize things didn’t feel quite right. Despite the usual concern that most young adults feel about their body image, he felt uncomfortable with how he looked, both inside and out.

Using washrooms was also a problem. A student at Esquimalt High, he wasn’t sure what response he would receive using the men’s washroom, but didn’t feel entirely comfortable using the women’s.

It wasn’t until Christmas of last year, when Armstrong came across the word that encompassed how he was feeling: non-binary, a term that refers to any gender that is not exclusively male or female. “It was like a puzzle piece clicking into place — everything else made a lot more sense,” said the 18-year-old. “When I actually figured out that non-binary is a thing, it sort of put it into perspective why that made me so uncomfortable.”

Now, all non-binary, trans or gender non-conforming students have a safe place to go at Esquimalt High, as the school installed its first gender neutral washroom last week.

It’s a project the school’s Queer Straight Alliance has been working on since last September.

Over the past few months, students have been trying to find the perfect location for the washroom and eventually decided the washroom by the school’s main stairwell provided accessibility for all students.

“It felt really cool that this was finally being done, because this is something we’ve been talking about since the start of the school year,” said Armstrong, who will graduate this year and is vice-president of the Alliance.

“It felt like an accomplishment.”

The washroom provides non-binary students like Katie Costas a safe and welcoming place.

“It felt so good (to have the washroom open),” said the Grade 10 student, who is president of the Alliance. “It’s good to know there’s a bathroom that isn’t a binary gender.”

Armstrong and Costas said it’s taking a bit of time for some students to get used to the washrooms, but the classmates hope more will be installed in the coming years in their school.

The initiative is part of the Greater Victoria School District’s gender identity and expression policy, which was implemented in September of last year.

The policy has included changing school forms and documents that ask for gender, single-gender sports and gives transgender and non-conforming gender students the option to be included in the group that they identify with.

It also ensures counsellors receive training in gender issues, and discriminatory actions and complaints related to gender identity are taken seriously, documented and dealt with.

“It’s going to make a huge difference in a lot of our trans students and gender non-conforming students’ lives,” said school trustee Jordan Watters.

He added that the district has heard from many students who say they don’t feel safe or welcome at school because they have don’t have a safe space to go to the washroom.

“You need food in your belly and you need to drink. Those are all things you need to live and to learn. So to be able to have a comfortable place to go to the washroom, is just going to simplify their lives … it sends a really strong message of how they belong in our community.”