For trans students at U of T, the fight for rights and equality is about much more than just washrooms
As a first-year student at Victoria College, Cassandra Williams never considered getting involved in campus politics. She concentrated on her studies in philosophy and cognitive science, and, in her spare time, hung out with friends in Toronto’s punk music scene.
But then Williams came across some people on Facebook who were harassing LGBTQ and foreign-born students, and she wanted to do something to counteract the “jerks.” So, in second year, she and a few friends created their own Facebook page – an explicitly inclusive and welcoming place where first-year students could find out from their upper-year classmates what was going on, meet other students and get information to ease what can be a stressful transition from high school to university.
For several months, Williams started her days by answering questions from anxious new students, primarily about how to navigate administrative complexities such as changing courses and getting financial aid. The page was well received and the U of T Students’ Union (UTSU) endorsed it. “I was convinced that I have a perspective that most people don’t because of the way I’ve interacted with students,” she says. Friends began pressing her to run for student government.
Earlier this year, she did exactly that. And in March, Williams was elected to the position of vice-president, university affairs. Her success marked the first time an out trans person had ever been elected to the UTSU executive. Her peers on the “Hello U of T” slate were “completely fine” with the fact that she had recently come out as trans, she says, and no one thought to make her historic campaign an issue, either celebratory or otherwise. “We’re a diverse group of students,” she says of her running mates. “It kind of flew under the radar.”
Williams is one of a growing number of U of T students who are identifying as trans – whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. Some may seek sex-reassignment surgery – also called medical transition or gender confirmation surgery – but many will not. Falling within the umbrella of trans are also students who reject the notion that there are only fixed male and female genders; they describe themselves as more fluid, or genderqueer. As generations have fought for equality between genders, races and classes, these students want the right to determine their own gender. Many are active on campus, challenging trans discrimination when they see it and fighting for change through their passions for politics, athletics and research.
U of T doesn’t track how many students identify as trans or genderqueer. But professors engaged in trans research and teaching at U of T say that more such students are visibly – and proudly – coming out. Elspeth Brown, a history professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs who conducts research on trans issues and history (see Partners in Transition), believes that high-profile activism and a proliferation of trans characters on TV shows such as Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have helped today’s students understand their own gender identity at a younger age. Medical technologies – hormones and gender-confirmation surgery – have also made the process of transitioning more accessible, although getting that health care is still difficult and can take years.
Nick Matte, who has taught trans studies at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies for eight years, says current students accept gender diversity more readily. They understand the difference between one’s sex – being assigned male or female at birth, based on cultural assumptions about the meaning of genitals – and gender, a social construct in which how a person feels about and expresses their own sense of self meets the expectations and interpretations of others. While many trans people publicly switch from one traditional gender role to another, some students see the gender binary as a limiting and even false construct; instead, they view gender as a rainbow of options, a sort of LGBTQ plus, plus, plus that can continue to evolve.
Despite the growing acceptance of trans people on campus, coming out is rarely easy. Williams says she enjoys the support of family and friends and describes herself as “pretty thick-skinned.” But professors have mistakenly called her a “he,” which Williams says is uncomfortable to correct. During an election debate, an opponent also referred to Williams as “he” – even after candidates had stated the pronouns they use to refer to themselves. Williams’ statement of her version of events and a demand for an apology caused a backlash on social media. But she asked her opponents to issue a written apology, not only for herself but for the opportunity to educate others.
Misgendering is one of the many kinds of violence against trans people that occur every day, says Williams. “It’s not just that they’re messing up pronouns. They assume the wrong things about you. A lot of people conceive of a trans woman as a man who wants to be a woman. Or they would assume you have a typical male perspective, and that’s not accurate.” Williams, who is tall and willow thin, admits her body may not read as what most people think of as a woman’s, but she says it’s wrong to conceive of her as anything other than a woman. Wearing makeup and taking hormones will help her pass but she also feels it’s essential for her to hold onto the trans label. “I understand why others would want to be stealth – to adopt a gender presentation or lifestyle in order to prevent oneself from being recognized as trans, often to avoid the persecution that goes along with being trans. But I think it’s important that there are openly trans people to show that trans people are everywhere.”
Iris Robin (BA 2016 Trinity) would prefer to transcend gender altogether. Robin was assigned female at birth but doesn’t identify as male or female, uses the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she,” and wears men’s clothing. Gender, says the former Varsity news editor, is not the most relevant thing about a person’s identity, yet it’s often the first thing people see. Names, clothing and even many careers are “coded” as male or female, says Robin, and people tend to “make snap judgments” based on these codes. Last year, Robin and another student challenged their peers at Trinity College to change a reference to “men and women” in the student government constitution to “members.” It took some persuasion, but the amendment eventually passed. All “members of Trinity College” are now constitutionally included, and traditionally segregated meetings of “women” and “men” of the college no longer take place; instead, all members of Trinity College attend together. “I’m glad we put these issues on the radar,” says Robin.
At the same time, U of T has responded in a variety of ways to the needs and concerns of trans and other gender non-conforming students. Since 2009, the university has allowed students to change their name and gender designation on student records without legal documentation (as long as they are Canadian citizens). They can also change their email address and get a new student ID card so that professors won’t mistakenly misgender or out them. Currently in development are forms that will make it even easier and faster for students to change their name or gender, or remove their gender designation altogether.
This past year, U of T’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Office started a peer discussion group called Gender Talk, where students can ask questions about gender identity, share strategies for dealing with discrimination and make friends and socialize. The Career Centre now offers one-on-one advising to help trans students prepare for job interviews with companies that may not be quite so accommodating.
As well, the university recently undertook a review of all of its public buildings with the aim of providing clear information about – and increasing the number of – single-user, all-gender washrooms. As part of the Change Room Project, launched last year, posters were installed in some locker rooms in athletic facilities across the three campuses featuring quotes from LGBTQ students about the uncomfortable stares, hateful comments or outright bullying they’d experienced in those spaces. The project’s goal: to build awareness and encourage locker-room behaviour that is more inclusive and compassionate.
Allison Burgess, U of T’s sexual and gender diversity officer, says these initiatives show that the university is responding to what it hears from trans students. “At U of T, people are working to create inclusive and welcoming spaces so that trans and non-binary students, staff and faculty are comfortable to be out. It’s not perfect and of course not everyone feels comfortable to be out,” she says. “But there are a lot of great initiatives that are helping all of us to learn about the multiplicity of gender identities.”
Kinnon MacKinnon, a PhD student in public health, is striving to change perceptions of trans people in athletics and the health-care system. MacKinnon competed nationally in skiing and snowboarding as a teenage girl, and won a gold medal in men’s powerlifting at the Gay Games in 2014. MacKinnon, who’s now 31, takes every opportunity to speak to audiences about being trans and an athlete. He points out that barriers to physical activity and sport go up long before youth enter university – when boys are picked on for being too girlish or vice versa. He cites a study that shows half of all trans people avoid going to the gym because they’re afraid of being outed, taunted or bullied.
Feeling shunned has damaging repercussions. Trans people suffer higher rates of mental health problems such as depression, suicide, anxiety and eating disorders. But when they seek help, says MacKinnon, they can also face discrimination in the health-care system, which compounds their suffering. “There’s a history of trans people being pathologized,” he says, noting that they must get permission from psychiatrists in order to medically transition whereas the general population can undergo extensive cosmetic surgeries without counsel. Having mental health-care providers act as “gatekeepers” to transition causes “a lot of animosity” among trans people. As a result, he says, many avoid seeking psychological help, even when they need it. For his PhD, MacKinnon is researching ways to reduce discrimination and increase understanding of trans people among health-care providers.
Ido Katri, a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Law, is also conducting research to advance trans issues. In April, he helped organize a conference at U of T and spent the day bounding between seminars to introduce speakers on a range of trans topics. Katri says the opportunity to be at the forefront of such conversations is what drew him to the university. “A lot of the most innovative things [on trans policy] are happening in Toronto and Canada,” he says.
Katri, who was the first out trans student at Hebrew University law school in Jerusalem, is tracking transgender legal struggles internationally. In particular, he’s interested in how state law reinforces gender categories in ways that privilege some (such as non-trans, straight white men), and not others, such as racialized or trans people, who as a result suffer higher rates of poverty, joblessness, homelessness and incarceration. He thinks the state should stop “policing” gender by requiring everyone to check a male or female box on administrative forms. Rather, he thinks the state should recognize and support an individual’s right to determine their own gender.
That he has gained privilege by passing as a man is not lost on him. “The division between who gets taken seriously, who gets heard, is very much affected by gender. I’m hyper-aware of how women and gender variants are treated so I try to make opportunities for others to speak, to take up space.” Although he fought for his male identity, he continues to identify as trans. “My experience is the in-between-ness.”
Seth Watt (BSc 2016 St. Michael’s), meanwhile, has set his sights on being one of the very few trans people doing research in the neuroscience of transgenderism. He enrolled at U of T at age 24, found his passion in trans research and caught fire academically. He has won a slew of academic awards and compiled a near perfect GPA. Watt likes to talks about “hormonal” influences on the brain to avoid reinforcing any notion that there might be a “male” brain or “female” brain – or, in the case of trans people, a “male brain” born into a female body or vice versa. “That absolves society of its role,” he says. Watt describes a thought experiment: “If it were possible to grow up a truly wild child, separated from society, would anyone feel distress about their gender identity?” That is, would they feel distress if they grew up in a culture that did not demonize alternate gender expressions?
Watt arrived at U of T after transitioning from an “androgynous person.” Everyone at the university got to know him as a man and he says he found it “really addictive” being “mundane” and “boring” – being just “the normal guy I always wanted to be.” His trans research outed him to fellow students, but that didn’t affect how they treated him, except in one small way. “It’s not so bad if the worst thing you can expect from fellow students is perhaps too much interest,” he says. “They ask a lot of questions.”
Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is the author of Older Faster Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer (Rodale Books, 2014)