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October 8, 2014 at 8:00 AM

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Rethinking Trans Accessibility: Making Public Spaces Safe for Trans & Gender-Variant People

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SFU Conference pic

by Lucas Crawford

For transgender people, bathrooms can really stink! Fortunately, Vancouverites have had ample chance to think creatively about bathroom access this year. In 2013, the Vancouver Parks Board struck a Trans* and Gender-Variant Inclusion Working Group to make recommendations on the city’s facilities, programming, training, and policies. In April 2014, the group presented its report, “Building a Path to Parks and Recreation for All: Reducing Barriers for Trans* & Gender-Variant Community Members.” The Parks Board was unanimous in its approval of the report’s 77 points. City dwellers that are new to trans issues might ask: how could there be 77 changes made to these spaces in which we make our #1s and #2s?

Sex-segregated bathrooms are places where simmering discomfort with transgender comes to a head. These scenarios might mean being stared at, treated suspiciously, asked to leave, assaulted, or arrested. For example, in 2002, transgender lawyer Dean Spade (Seattle) was arrested for using a men’s room in Grand Central Station. In 2010, a student at Cal State-Long Beach was followed into a bathroom, attacked, and had the word “IT” carved into his chest. A former lifeguard in Vancouver (who prefers to remain anonymous) describes a situation in which a trans woman was asked to leave a city pool after staff heard complaints about her presence. The author of this post can also tell many tales of being reported to staff at prairie YMCAs, quizzed about intimate body details by pool staff, or followed into bathrooms and confronted.

No wonder, then, that trans people insist that accessibility be rethought. In our city, this means we can soon expect to see non-gendered washrooms in parks, non-gendered signs on expanded universal change rooms, and more private changing stalls in all change rooms. There will also be increased support (via rental subsidies) to events such as the All Bodies Swim, a body-positive event that welcomes queer, trans, and disabled people to swim together.

This is good news. Let the champagne (and urine) flow freely! However, as disability and race advocates know, social inclusion is not achieved by mandated access alone. After all, a sidewalk is a “gender-neutral” space, but women who are commonly harassed know that policy alone does not defeat inequality. How can our city’s public spaces bring to life the promise of the new signs and facilities? Beyond the signs, how is gender-neutrality enacted?

Here are five small suggestions from the outlook of one transgender Vancouverite.

  1. Know that trans people often face multiple types of discrimination. As we are often discriminated against in workplaces, the biggest barrier to public space a trans person might face is a high cover charge.
  2. Because trans people often report disproportionate targeting by law enforcement, be mindful that many trans people will avoid spaces in which contact with law enforcement is more likely.SFU Conference pic
  3. Choose venues with non-gendered washrooms, or else post a handmade sign on the washrooms.
  4. Don’t require legal pieces of IDs for participation (or be welcoming to people with unconventional pieces of ID).
  5. Use architecture and installation to imagine new kinds of bathrooms.

On the last point, here are two examples. Consider Monica Bonvicini’s piece, “Don’t Miss a Sec,” a functioning public bathroom encased in one-way mirrors. The effect is that the curious public crowds the mirrored box, squinting to see inside – while the bathroom user has the feeling of relieving oneself on a big public stage with the public scrutinizing. Such art might give a non-trans person a sample of what it feels like to be trans in a public washroom!

Brasserie 1

Brasserie 2

Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro break down bathroom walls quite literally. In Brasserie, a mid-town Manhattan restaurant they designed in 2001, one long sink spans both bathrooms. The barely opaque wall between the rooms parts to let the sink pass. One small drain is located between the two rooms. Gendered wastewater swirls together and disappears. This whimsical design acknowledges – as will public spaces in Vancouver – that all of our gendered fluids end up in the same place anyhow. Recognizing this might just make bathrooms stink a little less for our city’s transgender, transsexual, and gender-variant dwellers.

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