For the first time in their lives, transgender students at Alberni District Secondary School will be able to use whatever washroom they need to, without having to ask for a key or stand in a lineup.
On Oct. 22, “Trans Welcome” signs went up on all the washrooms in the high school, making it clear that transgender students are welcome in washrooms and changerooms that match their gender identity.
“When I first found out about the bathrooms, it was an immediate sense of ‘I can finally be who I am,’” said one trans student the Alberni Valley News interviewed.
“I remember the excitement and the euphoria when it was announced,” teacher Anne Ostwald said.
“I cried,” another student said.
Another student also remembers the fear when the signs were ripped down.
School District 70’s decision to put up the signs has prompted a tsunami of comment on Port Alberni social media sites, as people passionately debated the new policy. While the atmosphere in the school has been fairly muted, trans students say that adults outside of the school have blown the issue way out of proportion.
“It’s just sad,” they said.
There are about a dozen transgender or gender-variant students who attend ADSS.
“Then there are those who haven’t come out or who haven’t figured it out,” they said.
They just want to be able to go to the washroom in the facility that matches their gender identity.
“There are transgender youth at ADSS,” says Greg Smyth, superintendent of schools in School District 70. “They have largely been a marginalized group in schools and society. We don’t think there’s going to be a sudden (rush) of ‘I’m going to exercise my right and I’m going to use the washroom.’ But if they choose to, they have the right.”
The decision to put up the signs and open the washrooms is based on a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Code decision that sexual orientation is considered a right. The school district is actually behind in making this change, Smyth said.
The school district has drafted a policy on diversity and inclusion that has been prompted, in part, by Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), which school districts in British Columbia are supporting—including SD70.
“This is not about putting a sign on the wall,” he said. “Acceptance is much, much more than that. And it’s not limited to accepting transgender youth, it’s anybody who is different. This is just one more step down that path.”
Smyth said there is a prevailing attitude in the community that “by addressing individual rights you’ve taken away the rights of others. It’s not true. Females who identify with their gender at birth can still use the female washroom. Same for guys. Their right has not been removed.
“We have just acknowledged that there is an equal right to use it.”
Gender identity “is not purely biological”, he said. “We’ve broadened the definition of male and female to include gender identity. We know there is a percentage of our population which still holds onto the thought that gender is based on biology.
“As a school district, we can’t continue with that singular definition of what is male and what is female. To act as if there is a single definition of male and female, is deemed to be discriminatory.”
For trans students, the need is much more simple: they need a place where they can go to the toilet and do it safely. Because they haven’t been going—at all.
“I just avoid going,” they said.
“You wait until you go home. Which for many of us is more than six hours. I leave the house at 7:20 a.m. and don’t get home until 4:20. I wouldn’t use the bathroom.”
The high school has given access to three gender-neutral washrooms for about a year: one in the sick room, one in the staff room and the third in the family washroom on the lower floor. The problem with these washrooms, said one student, was that if the sick room was occupied by another student, that facility was off limits; the one on the lower floor is popular with students skipping classes, and there is often a lineup. The gender-neutral washrooms were available for everyone’s use.
An inclusive school environment is about more than changing washroom signage, Smyth wrote in his letter to parents. “It’s about understanding, appreciating and accepting the diversity of our school communities; it’s about creating safe, welcoming and supportive schools…”
Despite the new signs going up, not all trans students have used the washroom that matches their gender identity. Two admitted that they had—but that they hid until they were certain the washrooms were empty before entering.
Smyth is quick to silence critics who say the new rules and signs will only encourage people to take advantage—boys declaring they are transgender so they can gain access to the girls’ washroom, for example.
“Mr. Souther (principal Rob) was really clear to students…this isn’t licence to say tomorrow I’m going to be a girl so I can go into the girls’ washroom,” Smyth said. “People will be addressed in an appropriate way” if they do.
Trans students at ADSS agree that the “trans welcome” signs are a good step toward acceptance.
The next step, they hope, will be “understanding and empathy. And maybe people not attacking us.”
Students were interviewed for this story with a teacher present and granted anonymity so they don’t become further targets in the community.