Fostering a respectful, accepting and safe climate

Part II (from March 9)

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.

“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. Alec 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. 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,” Eslinger said. “In your classrooms you have to include everyone.”

Colin Cunningham said Harriette Cunningham 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.

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.