Hamilton city councillors approve a new transgender rights protocol

It's only round one, but Hamilton city councillors have approved a new protocol mandating how the city will treat residents who are transgender and gender non-conforming.

The infamous 'bathroom debate' is a red herring, transgender advocates say

"Look at me in the eye and tell me I should use the men’s room, or the men’s change room, or the men’s showers," says Colleen McTigue. "I am a woman in every respect." McTigue was one of the many speakers Monday encouraging Hamilton city councillors to pass a new transgender and gender non-conforming protocol. The committee did so unanimously. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It's only round one, but Hamilton city councillors have approved a new protocol mandating how the city will treat residents who are transgender and gender non-conforming. That includes rules saying they can use the public restrooms and change rooms based on their gender identities.

Why must we come up here and show that we are human enough?- Tai Jacob, McMaster student

City council's audit, finance and administration committee approved a new protocol Monday. Council will cast a final ratifying vote on Wednesday. 

About 200 people filled city council chambers to hear the debate, most of whom supported the protocol. Jim Enos from the Christian Heritage Party opposed it, saying allowing transgender women to use women's restrooms puts cisgender women in danger. He also says his charter rights have been violated after an incident with bus shelter ads last year.

But after hours of presentations, the committee approved a protocol that Nicole Nussbaum, a lawyer specializing in transgender rights, called "on the cutting edge of best practice."

"(This will) really echo in terms of leadership around the world," she told councillors.

"What I’m asking for is so basic," says Tai Jacob, a member of the McMaster Students Union's women and gender equity network, on the city protocol saying it's OK for residents who are transgender to use the washroom that matches their gender identity. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Here are some other elements of the protocol:

  • When possible, the city will provide unisex, single-stall washrooms or change rooms, but will not force anyone to use them.
  • Disclosing someone's gender identity or transition without their consent or knowledge is a form of harassment and discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. This goes for city employees as well as when the city deals with the public.
  • In both cases people "must be referred to by their preferred name, gender and pronoun."
  • City employees should use inclusive language while interacting with the public — eg. "people" instead of "men and women," or "they" instead of "he" and "she."
  • City employees should think about whether gender information is necessary before they ask the public to provide it. Ideally, instead of "male" or "female" check boxes, there will be a blank space for the person to write in their gender.

The city had to establish a protocol after an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal settlement. In 2014, a transgender woman tried to use the women's washroom at an HSR terminal. A guard stopped her and directed her to the unisex washroom. The woman filed an Ontario Human Rights tribunal complaint. 

It offends me to see people trying to influence city policy based on their brand of Christianity.- Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli

Tai Jacob, a member of the McMaster Student Union's women and gender equity network, said Monday's presentations shouldn't even be necessary.

"None of us should have had to speak today," Jacob told councillors. The right to use a public washroom is "so basic."

"Why must I and my friends come up and ask for this? … Why must we come up here and show that we are human enough?"

Various faith communities supported the protocol, including two Jewish rabbis, the nuns from the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Unitarian and United Church clergy. 

Do you think that all people using washrooms, for instance, have the same rights? Or is it just the transgender that have rights?- Coun. Doug Conley

"It offends me to see people trying to influence city policy based on their brand of Christianity," said Rabbi Hillel Lavery-Yisraeli of Beth Jacob Synagogue. Historic Jewish rabbis and scholars, he said, recognized several genders.

Members of the Trinity Canadian Reformed Church, Reheboth United Reformed Church and Enos spoke against the protocol, saying it puts children and cisgender women at risk.

"There is a shift taking place in our society, and it's a morally degrading shift," said Pastor Steve Swets from Reheboth United Reformed.

Coun. Doug Conley of Ward 9 wasn't on the committee but sat in on part of the debate.

Look at me in the eye and tell me I should use the men's room.- Colleen McTigue

"Do you think that all people using washrooms, for instance, have the same rights?" he asked one presenter. "Or is it just the transgender that have rights?"

Colleen McTigue, a Niagara transgender woman, said the notion that people who are transgender will expose themselves in restrooms is a tired and unrealistic one. 

The last thing people who are transgender want to do is call attention to themselves in restrooms and change rooms, she said. In fact, people who are transgender are most likely to get assaulted in washrooms.

Besides, she said, her walking into a men's room would create an awkward situation. 

"Look at me in the eye and tell me I should use the men's room, or the men's change room, or the men's showers," she said. "I am a woman in every respect."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC