After months of discussion and debate, Bill C-16, federal legislation that aims to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in the Human Rights Act and Criminal Code, passed third reading in senate on June 15th, 2017. While forthcoming federal protections undoubtedly constitute a win for the transgender and gender nonconforming community, the battle for rights is far from over. Even within the most privileged of settings – the university – gender diversity is systemically denied, rendering trans and gender nonconforming identities and expressions subject to invisibilization, discrimination and violence. Combining lived experience with preliminary findings from my own recent empirical research, I provide an overview of the ways in which transgender students are institutionally oppressed in the university.
I began my journey into graduate studies in Fall of 2015. Moving provinces to begin a Master’s program at the University of Ottawa, I was embarking on a new adventure to develop my career in academia. During this time, I also transitioned my gender from female to male – to which I had been utterly unprepared for the ways in which my identity would be unrelentingly invalidated, both socially and institutionally.
Washrooms were the first source of tension upon entering the University of Ottawa as a student who was transitioning. Realizing a devastating lack of gender neutral washrooms in the university, I was obliged to travel down 8 floors to find an appropriate washroom – but at least there was a gender neutral washroom in my building. When attempting to access the campus gym, I experienced a series of discriminatory events stemming from the university’s failure to provide a gender-inclusive change room. After the final event, in which I was offered an equipment room closet in which to change, I filed a human rights complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and remain entangled within the lengthy process today.
Since transition, I also encountered the daily struggles associated with having a gender presentation that did not ‘match’ my legal name. After months of paperwork, I finally received my new birth certificate that reflected my new name and gender in the early months of 2017. Yet, my initial relief that I would no longer have to justify my identity was short lived; months after updating my legal name with the university, I continue to receive emails and employee contracts (for my work as a teaching assistant and research assistant) under my former name. I am even required to pick up prescription medication under my former identity because the university failed to update the information on my student health insurance plan.
After months of injustices, I decided, as an activist and scholar, that I wanted to work towards ensuring better treatment for my trans and gender nonconforming peers. In Fall of 2016, I initiated an independent project, under the supervision of Dr. Corrie Scott (University of Ottawa) and Dr. Rena Bivens (Carleton University), to survey the transgender and gender nonconforming student body at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University in relation to administrative matters, social relations on campus, and access to facilities. In total, 54 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals responded to the survey: 34 (62.9%) were students of the University of Ottawa and the remaining 20 (37%) attended Carleton University.
What we found helped verify my own experiences of oppression and revealed the stark prevalence of these occurrences:
Findings exposed the frequency of verbal victimization and harassment that trans and gender nonconforming students experience on campus (14.9%). “I do often hear – from students and faculty – transphobic jokes (you know the type, the "man in a dress" punchline, etc).”
The majority of participants (61.2%) had to travel across campus to feel safe and/or comfortable in a washroom. One participant remarks that they "avoid any possibility of being ridiculed and go home instead.”
Over half (57.1%) have avoided the campus gym because of a fear of using the traditional men or women’s change rooms. "Being forced to choose a locker room has made me avoid using the fitness centres."
Of those who used university health services, 75% indicated that their doctor was not knowledgeable about trans health care. One participant commented that the university doctor’s "care was irresponsible - he left my hormones at dangerously high levels (6x the normal upper limit for testosterone).”
Although Bill C-16 has been criticized as a leftist project that seeks to criminalize misgendering, the new anti-discrimination legislation has real significance for those who fall under the trans umbrella. The implementation of Bill C-16 will now light fire under the feet of institutions to develop gender-inclusive policy and procedure, such as offering the use of a preferred name and gender on documentation, and expand their facilities to better accommodate the needs of trans and gender nonconforming individuals.
While Bill C-16 is the cause of much recent uproar, several provinces and territories had already implemented such laws. In fact, the Ontario Human Rights Code was amended back in 2015 to include protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. However, in light of the continual infringement of transgender and gender nonconforming university students’ rights, there is evidently much work to be done within the universities to foster gender inclusion.
Regardless of formal protections, the transgender and gender nonconforming community is far from achieving substantive equality; the disadvantage that the community experiences is a direct manifestation of the binary and deterministic view of sex/gender which is deeply embedded in the structures of Western society. Keeping in mind that social change often requires much more than changes in the law, Bill C-16 should be viewed as a mere stepping stone in the larger battle for trans rights.