University of Manitoba faces complaint from transgender student

A transgender student says he was stripped of his dignity while attending the University of Manitoba's Inner-City ACCESS Program in social work, so he has filed a human-rights complaint alleging discrimination.
Damien Leggett, a transgender student at the University of Manitoba, says he was stripped of his dignity while attending its Inner-City ACCESS Program in social work. 2:34

A transgender student says he was stripped of his dignity while attending the University of Manitoba's Inner-City ACCESS Program in social work, so he has filed a human-rights complaint alleging discrimination.

Damien Leggett's complaint against the university is currently being investigated by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

Leggett was a single parent with three children when he entered the social work program in 2010. He had a Grade 9 education and was living on social assistance at the time.

Leggett was also in the beginning stages of transitioning from female to male and thought he could find his place in the program.

"This program definitely sounds like it's set up for people like me. I am going through a transition, and this may be a safe haven," he told CBC News in an interview.

The ACCESS program recruits students who face barriers to a university education, and Leggett said he saw it as a way to a better life for him and his three kids.

His professor, Pat Hrabok, said Leggett was an ideal candidate for the program.

"He had a lot of life experiences that were beyond what most of our students come with," Hrabok said.

"His readiness and ability to do the work, and his experience — that was a clear indication that social work was something he was suited to."

Confusion started on 1st day

From the first day, Leggett felt his dignity as a transgender person was not being respected.

"I was confused because there was no access to a gender-neutral bathroom," he said.

"I had disclosed to the four people interviewing me that I was trans, so I thought there has to be somewhere."

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Leggett said he would skip lunch and breakfast to avoid having to use the bathroom, which was shared with other tenants of the building.

The university granted Leggett access to the staff washroom, which was gender-neutral, but that came months later and only after numerous requests.

Leggett said he also asked his professors to use male pronouns, despite the fact he had not yet legally changed his name.

He said one professor kept calling him a "she" in class despite repeated requests to stop.

In a one-on-one meeting, the professor told Leggett it was not her fault that she couldn't remember to use proper pronouns.

"She said, 'Maybe if you have a moustache or something, that would help.' I couldn't grow a moustache yet. Hearing her say that, I just walked out and broke down," he said.

"She said, 'My brain isn't doing it for me. I just don't see a man. I just see a woman.'"

Leggett said he felt annihilated by the conversation and the professor's refusal to change, citing the university's own policies.

"She said, 'You might want to check with the administration because I don't think I have to call you anything other than your birth name,'" he said.

'Sad and unacceptable,' says professor

Leggett said one student asked him to draw a diagram of his genitals, and another brought a fake moustache to class. He felt humiliated.

The behaviour was very disturbing to Hrabok, who witnessed it first-hand.

She said the ACCESS program was promoted as being for people who have gone through discrimination, so watching one of her students face it in the program was very hard.

"I find it not just sad and unacceptable, but scary," she said. "I don't even have words for it, that it has happened and that it continues to happen."

Leggett said the university did little to educate the people in the program and officials did not step in on his behalf.

He said he asked for a mandatory workshop to help people understand and respect transgender issues.

"When the workshop came to be, it was a LGBT 101 … only two students came from that year and a few profs came," he said.

Despite the difficulties, Leggett was determined to carry on with the program. He returned to school the following September.

But things got a lot worse in the second year, he said.

Forced out of program

Leggett said some professors took issue with a student Facebook group.

"We had this Facebook group set up to keep in touch with each other, arrange babysitting," he said.

Leggett said frustration over an assignment led to other students making inappropriate comments on the Facebook page. The professor took issue with Leggett and targeted him as the ringleader, he said.

"There was a student who wanted to punch him in the face and he was never talked to," Leggett said.

Leggett said he was forced out of the program shortly afterwards for allegedly making an insensitive joke about another student's flatulence.

"I felt like it was an excuse to get me out," he said.

For Hrabok, a 30-year veteran, the action came as a shock.

"They just decided that whatever had happened was so awful that they had to start a process that would get them out of the program," she said.

"It was like nothing I had ever seen in the whole history of the program."

For Leggett, the effect was devastating. He lost his funding and he couldn't access his student loans.

"For six months, it was just complete poverty," he said. "The worst part was that our life had just become normal."

University denies allegations

Officials with the University of Manitoba said they cannot comment on confidential information involving students or staff.

In documents obtained by CBC News, the university denies the allegations made by Leggett.

According to the documents, the university says its decision was based on Leggett's conduct and was not made on the basis of his transgender status.

Leggett had identified himself as female at the time of application, the university adds.

"The student was primarily or exclusively known to staff as female throughout the application, admission and orientation process; a period of six months," states the university's reply to Leggett's complaint with the human rights commission.

The documents state that the university is not liable for the behaviour of students and says Leggett did not bring his alleged complaints to university officials for corrective action.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, the university said staff and students were offered workshops.

"Some members of our staff and students where appropriate have been trained by the Rainbow Resource Centre in a workshop on GLBTTQ issues," the statement reads in part.

Moved to another faculty

According to the documents, the Inner City Social Work program wrote to Leggett welcoming him back into the program.

But for Leggett, it was too little, too late.

He approached the Faculty of Extended Education shortly after the suspension, begging officials to consider him for admission into its sociology program so he could access funding.

"They looked at my docs, my letters, and they said this doesn't add up," he said.

Leggett was accepted into the faculty and now works as a research assistant, on his way to completing an honours degree.

Leggett said he has exhausted every appeal trying to get the non-academic discipline decision reversed.

He approached the university's Human Rights Advisory Office, but Leggett said it could not resolve the complaint, so he filed with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

An independent investigator recently contacted Leggett and will issue a formal report when the process is complete.

Leggett said he wants to make sure no other transgender person faces what he went through.

"All I wanted was for someone to say, 'This is a human being, he's a human being just like you,'" he said. "'His issues are different, and he has gender identity issues. Let's try to help him.'"