Feature: Gender & Diversity
First of its kind: Humber’s new Gender and Diversity policy
Transgender rights and issues come to the forefront as the college celebrates Awareness Week from April 7 to 10.
Humber News takes a look at the policy and the people behind the story.
The changes may seem small but the effect can be huge for some students and staff, as Humber becomes the first college in Ontario to introduce a stand-alone Gender and Diversity policy.
The move brings Humber in line with recent changes in the Ontario Human Rights Code, recognizing the needs and rights transgender individuals on campus. Two years ago, the code was amended to include gender identity and gender expression as grounds of discrimination.
The policy outlines the students’, employees’ and institution’s responsibilities.
“We felt that given that gender diversity, although not a new issue, and in the past fell under the grounds of sex, (that) we needed to make it more explicit to ensure that we were managing any issues that came forward in an effective, consistent and strategic manner,” Nancy Simms, director of Humber’s Centre for Human Rights, Equity & Diversity told Humber News.
But policy or no policy, “if someone thinks you’re in the wrong space, you’re in the wrong space,” said 25-year-old Humber student Reagan McSwain. “No matter what the human rights code is, in that moment if that person is transphobic, or homophobic and violent, that’s just who they are and what they are, and you’re just in that situation.”
Humber journalism student Reagan McSwain, 25 (Janie Ginsberg/Humber News)
Changes to the human rights code got the ball rolling for Humber, but it’s been necessary for a long time.
“When I was first applying here I came out as trans person when applying and the person was like ‘sorry what?’ and it was up to me to define, in this moment, literally from the Webster dictionary like what that meant, which is crazy. That shouldn’t be my responsibility,” said McSwain.
This can be chalked up to ignorance in its purest form, but it’s still no excuse. This is why this policy is necessary, the implementation of which would make everyday transactions less painful and complicated.
“Even renting cameras, as a journalism student…where these people were like mocking my birth name, and saying ‘haha clearly this is a mistake, you’re not this person’…they just weren’t ready for it…they had no idea what was going on,” he said.
Rainbow flags fly high in the Humber hallways, but accommodations for trans students aren’t nearly where they need to be. “Not being included in certain spaces, literally being excluded, not being able to access change rooms, or the pool or any sort of athletic facility – any sort – after my class…anything that was in that space had no space to accommodate me,” said McSwain.
No matter what the human rights code is, in that moment if that person is transphobic, or homophobic and violent, that’s just who they are and what they are, and you’re just in that situation – McSwain
“The ability to access those would have been me outing myself in front of a bunch of people in a very hyper-masculine space, which is pretty unsafe for trans people when you don’t know that they have a policy that’s going to protect you.”
The new policy states that nobody can be asked or required to prove their gender in order to access any campus facilities, activities or initiatives, and defines trans as an “umbrella term” to describe people who don’t conform to “what society usually defines as a man or a woman.”
According to the section on gender-inclusive language, calling a trans member of the Humber community by an incorrect name or pronoun intentionally is considered a form of harassment and violates the policy.
“It looks like the school is now prepared to learn language across the spectrum of the whole institution. So all the faculty and all the staff, it seems, are now going to be aware of what the word trans means,” said McSwain.
Humber College Advertising and Graphic Design student Hadley Bird, 21 (Katie Pedersen/Humber Et Cetera)
Hadley Bird, a 21-year-old trans guy taking Advertising and Graphic Design at Humber College, also said he appreciates the language outlined in the new policy.
“I’m glad to have it, I think it’s important that it’s more specifically worded for trans people and gender non-conforming people,” he said.
Bird said overall his experience at Humber has been good, but pronoun use has been a continuing problem.
“I’ve had a few issues with professors and students who didn’t get it, even now I get misgendered,” he said.
The policy also describes the process of “outing,” which is disclosing the status of a trans person without their consent, and puts this also under the category of trans discrimination.
The issue of washrooms has been on the radar for trans awareness for while, as the damaging effects of gender binaries in society continue to be uncovered.
“There are already all-gender washrooms on Humber’s campuses, and they have…the signage indicates that, so there’s 16 washrooms between Lakeshore and North that anybody can use, and they say ‘accessible all gender washrooms,’ ” said Bowen.
These already exist and were put in place before the policy came into effect, which states that the College will continue to make efforts to ensure all members of the Humber community are able to use the washrooms with “safety, privacy and dignity, regardless of their gender identity or gender expression.”
But, there isn’t any new signage or specific bathrooms that will be created in light of this new policy.
“Putting things even just on all of the bathrooms, something like trans inclusive with a star, so that as a trans person they know they’re welcome in that space is super helpful,” said McSwain.
As a privileged person, as someone who is being read as a white male, I look ridiculous standing in line when everyone is in a chair who clearly need that space – McSwain
When he first started at Humber last year, he requested a washroom accommodation.
“It was just so crazy that I was being sent to a bathroom that was like under construction, that no one knew about and nobody was accessing,” he said. “But as a trans person, if I’m outed, if I’m followed…that’s also super dangerous. You’ve now sent me to the middle of nowhere.”
He said being in the bathroom was a huge stress, and was often late for classes because he was trekking across school – an experience shared by many members of the trans community.
“The distance between each of the all-gender washrooms is pretty significant, they don’t seem to be in buildings where there are a lot of classes,” said Bird, who studies at the Lakeshore Campus.
“It will make or break your day. You will make decisions like whether you’re drinking a cup of coffee or not…for me, I was literally going to the library every single day to use the non-gender single stall.”
The new all-gender signage is tacked on next to the accessibilities sign outside of select washrooms, which McSwain said causes further problems.
“As a privileged person, as someone who is being read as a white male, I look ridiculous standing in line when everyone is in a chair who clearly need that space. When people are trying to change their babies, like why am I taking up that space? I shouldn’t have to be. But over there I’m going to be beat up, and over there I’m going to be yelled at, so what space do I access?”
Bird echoes this accessibility concern. “I don’t feel comfortable using them – what if someone with a wheelchair needs it?”
The section regarding changerooms in the policy states that all members of the Humber community have the right to a safe change-room that corresponds with their gender identity.
“Where changerooms do not have separate privacy stalls, reasonable accommodations will be provided on a case-by-case basis that endeavours to effectively meet the individual’s particular needs,” the policy reads.
The accommodation may include options like access to a restricted office or area, a separate changing schedule allowing changeroom use before or after hours of common access, a reasonable re-design of existing facilities, or if consented by the person seeking accommodation, access to the change-room corresponding to their assigned sex at birth.
“This lays out very clearly, that I, as a trans person, will have the right to access whatever accommodations I require. I literally did not have that a year ago,” said McSwain about the policy.
Bird came out as a trans guy one year ago. He’s been on testosterone for a month and is now out to his family, friends, co-workers and classmates. Bird is also on the waiting list for the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction’s gender identity clinic to get approval for surgery, but the waiting list is 18 to 24 months (Katie Pedersen).
Residences, a traditionally gender-specific environment, were also covered in the policy. It states that the college is committed to providing safe and inclusive accommodation regardless of gender identity and expression.
It also includes rights for residents in transition, or those who decide to undergo one during their time at Humber, saying the college will reasonably accommodate the student’s changing housing needs.
“Some folks over here in the residence were part of that collaboration with the Centre for Human Rights, Equity & Diversity, so it’s been an ongoing conversation about language, what to make sure is in the application, and ensuring that we’re compliant with a lot of the document,” said Phil Legate, manager of Residence Life Student Success & Engagement.
The college intends to continue to make efforts to ensure there is an option to share an “all-gender suite” in residence, which is done in mutual agreement with the other roommate.
The only difference between an “all-gender suite” and a “common suite” is in the application process.
It will make or break your day. You will make decisions like whether you’re drinking a cup of coffee or not…for me, I was literally going to the library every single day to use the non-gender stall – McSwain
Essentially what happens is when a student is applying to residence there is a question that asks whether or not they prefer a roommate who is happy to live in a gender-inclusive suite, said Legate. They have the option to say yes or no, and at that point if someone selects yes, they are matched with someone else who also selects yes.
And if only one student wants a gender-inclusive suite and no match is found, there are still a couple of options, such as leaving one side of the suite empty until someone satisfies the criteria.
“My understanding is that this hasn’t happened to us yet, so we’ve never encountered that situation,” said Legate.
Humber residence staff attend workshops offered by the Centre for Human Rights, Equity & Diversity as part of their training. Legate said they would most likely be going over the new policy before the upcoming school year.
“I think this year definitely we’ll have to have a conversation with Nancy Simms to make sure we include the new policy and share some of that with the res life staff,” he said.
“I think a lot of what is in the policy is in line with our residence values, which we’re really big on because obviously we have a lot of students living together in residence sharing the space, so we want to make sure there is that understanding that there needs to be a certain level of respect and dignity and inclusivity…we definitely live and breathe these policies.”
Direct links on where to find policies can be found in the residence handbook, but aren’t physically posted in residence, said Legate.
“A huge thing is making sure that people understand that there is this policy upheld that protects them, so they can now walk into the bathroom. If they’re beat up and someone needs to come in and break up this fight, this person will not be pulled out because they’re in the wrong space, and the other person will be held accountable for harassment (for violating the policy),” said McSwain.
Simms said they are starting to roll out a communications strategy to make students aware of the new policy that will be shared through multiple venues.
“The policy, first and foremost, is posted on Humber’s policy site,” she said. It will also be posted on the students services site.
Another way it will be shared is through the Humber Students’ Federation, online training and Humber TV (HTV).
A 2013 rally in Washington, DC in support of the equal health and livelihood of trans people (Ted Eytan/Flickr)
But will these methods of “advertising” be effective?
In order to seek out the policy on any Humber website, students would have to have prior knowledge about its existence, and the same applies for online training.
A small sample poll of students suggests that Humber doesn’t actually pay much attention to HTV.
First-year paralegal student, Jian Spence, said he “just doesn’t pay attention.” These thoughts were echoed by first-year accounting student, Kenny Vo, who said he’ll peek over at the TV when he has nothing else to look at.
“I glance at it, but I don’t really pay too much attention. It doesn’t intrigue me,” said second-year paralegal student Akintoye Akins.
Other responses included watching it when they’re alone and confusion about its purpose. “It’s helpful,” said first-year culinary management student, Harsha Perera. “I usually come in the morning…I always sit here (outside Java Express) and look at some of the events. “
I think a lot of what is in the policy is in line with our residence values, which we’re really big on because obviously we have a lot of students living together in residence sharing the space – Legate
McSwain was adamant about just how important visibility is for this policy in order for it to succeed and actually help people.
“I think it needs to be displayed. I think it needs to be displayed in the library, I think it needs to be displayed in absolutely every single bathroom, I think it needs to be displayed on the front of the gym, I think it needs to be displayed somewhere close to all the entrances,” he said.
Bird said he thinks it should be front and centre on the school’s website for a bit, and included in all paperwork that students agree to when applying to Humber.
“I think that people need to know in the same way that we literally have Humber signs that have the rainbow attached to it, we’re very queer positive, we’re doing a lot of work with the idea that we’re inclusive, with these tag lines and these words, but what are those if we’re not actually doing them,” said McSwain.
Importance to post-secondary community
“As a first year trans student, a lot of the time if you’re 18 years old, this is the first time you’re able to make those decisions for yourself, to change your identity and stuff, if you haven’t been upheld in your home, for reasons of your parents not letting you express that,” said McSwain.
Tristian Wells, Humber Gender and Sexual Diversity Committee assistant, said “everything happens with progress and the LGBTQ+ community has been advocating and stuff. I think it’s good that such a large institution is finally integrating such policy.”
He said it’s a major step forward.
I feel like a lot of trans people and gender variant people will at least feel a lot safer, which means they will be less closeted, they’re going to come out and be more visible in gyms, and over time that breaks down things – McSwain
It’s important, he said, for Humber College as an institute that represents a very large, diverse, group of students be inclusive. “Being inclusive in a policy such as this one can really help save lives. It’s very important to make sure all types of people are recognized within major policies,” he said.
“Ultimately something like this is basic human rights.”
McSwain agreed that despite some holes in the policy and awareness strategy, Humber is ahead of the game in many ways. “For all the lack of queer visibility and space they are really aware, I do really respect that.”
“I feel like a lot of trans people and gender variant people will at least feel a lot safer, which means they will be less closeted, they’re going to come out and be more visible in gyms, and over time that breaks down things,” he said.
A lot of the problems with transphobia come from lack of education. Having training available to teachers saying ‘you may encounter these students and here’s how you respond,’ that takes care of a lot of discriminatory remarks,” said Bird.
Thirty-one administrative staff members met on March 26 to discuss inclusivity with the aim of discouraging transphobia at Humber College (Aresell Joseph/Humber Et Cetera)
The creation of this policy is just the beginning, and it still leaves unanswered questions.
“How do you solidify (the idea) that these people really exist, they’re walking around everywhere, and yet literally walking on eggshells, because anything can happen,” asked McSwain.
The new gender and diversity policy won’t change anything unless people know it’s here, and it’s something the school is serious about.
At its core, post-secondary education is about learning, and “you are not able to learn in a setting you are that stressed out in, that you a. don’t exist in, and b. aren’t recognized in,” said McSwain.
“I would ask the institution, ‘what are you willing to do? What are you ready to do when you put out (the policy) to keep me safe? When I’m being beat up in a bathroom, what are you trained for, what are you ready for?’ ”