When trans and gender-diverse people were added to the Ontario Human Rights Code in 2017, they were given the right to be free from discrimination when they used, among other things, recreational facilities open to the public. At the same time, facilities providers were mandated to accommodate this newly protected group. To address potential situations involving competing rights, the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a comprehensive set of guidelines.
Nowhere do these guidelines say that facilities open to the public must abolish single-sex change rooms. In fact, they even address a hypothetical situation of a trans person who has not yet finished transitioning by suggesting that the facility set up a private room in the men’s or women’s change room, or perhaps, in time, a private, single-user space within a universal change room. The Peterborough Sport and Wellness Centre already has both.
By converting its former “family” change room into a universal change room last year, the Wellness Centre made this space available to everyone, be they a trans or gender-diverse individual, a disabled person, a member of a family, or, indeed, any other person who wished to use it.
At the same time, those who preferred a single-sex, communal change room could continue to use the men’s or the women’s. The City of Peterborough is to be commended for recognizing the rights of non-binary people and striking the right balance by offering these choices. Someone who isn’t traditionally male or female can indeed go comfortably to the gym or the pool, just like anyone else. No one notices who goes in and out of which change room, and no one cares.
The system is working, so imagine the shock when the city announced that it would be doing away with the three current change rooms and replacing them with one, large, gender-neutral change room. Where’s the evidence of interference with trans and gender-diverse rights? Why, then, the need for such a radical redesign? To quote the commission guidelines, “Similarly, speculation that a rights violation may occur is not enough – there must be evidence, and not just an unsupported assumption ….”
Some may argue that a gender-diverse person has a “lived experience” that others may not fully appreciate, but so does an abused wife, a young woman with special needs, and an 80-year-old widow with a walker. All of them have reasons why they may need the extra sense of security that a women-only change room offers. Women make up the vast majority of domestic abuse victims; of sexual assault victims; of users of college and university “walk safe” programs. Women, in certain contexts, need to feel that they are in a safe and private space – and here, private does not mean individual, walled cubicles; it means a women-only space.
The point is to balance rights, and, in our view, the best way of doing that is to maintain men’s and women’s communal change rooms and a universal change room, open to everyone, alongside. What the city did, by announcing a done deal to reconfigure the current change rooms into one gender-neutral space, was antithetical to the procedures recommended by the commission.
Instead, the commission recommends a five-step process to assist parties with differing views to reach an understanding of their respective rights and values, stressing that no single complaint should be decided without considering the context of the situation in which it takes place. A change room in a hip, urban neighbourhood in Toronto is not necessarily a model for a municipally-owned facility serving an entire city and county. One size does not fit all.
The Committee for Change Room Choice believes that it’s time for participants on all sides of the issue to step back. We suggest that the proposed project be unbundled so that necessary repairs to the HVAC system and pipes can be done now. Then, when time and budgets permit, the community can agree on a reasonable plan – after thorough community consultation, as recommended by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
When Parliament held hearings on whether to add gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Code, Marie-Claude Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, testified in support of the proposal but added this cautionary warning: “But let me be clear: No right under the Act is unlimited. The addition of new grounds does not mean an uncontrollable influx of complaints. It doesn’t mean that every request for accommodation will be necessary, or reasonable, or fulfilled perfectly . . . . It doesn’t mean that women lose their rights to safety and privacy.”
In other words, she called for balance. That is what the City of Peterborough should keep in mind as it deliberates the future of the Wellness Centre for the next 25 years.