Transgender bathroom debate has students wondering 'what the big deal is'

When it comes to the debate over transgender bathroom rights in schools, parents and politicians on both sides like to say they're doing what's best for children. But what do the kids who actually use these washrooms think?

Teens call the fight to restrict washroom access 'ridiculous' and 'absurd'

All over Canada and the U.S., parents and pundits and politicians are piping up about school gender and bathroom policies — but is anyone asking the students how they feel? (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

School bathrooms have become the front lines of legal and political battles over transgender rights in Canada and the U.S., but some of the students who actually use those bathrooms say their voices are getting lost amid the noise. 

"It just feels like parents and teachers are taking over," says Oliver Bailey, a 16-year-old transgender boy from Calgary, where controversy has erupted over a new provincial education mandate that guarantees students have the right to self-identify their gender and use the bathroom of their choice. 

South of the border, the Obama administration says public schools must allow transgender students to use the washroom of their choice, which doesn't sit well with Republican-led states that want to restrict bathroom use based on biological sex. 

And the Liberal government's new transgender rights bill is expected to face a tough fight in the Senate, where similar legislation was gutted over the bathroom issue. 

CBC News has reached out to students across the country to find out what they think of this tempest over washroom stalls. 

'I don't understand why it's an issue'

Despite the backlash over Alberta's mandate, Oliver says students and staff at Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary have been very welcoming since he came out to them as transgender at the beginning of the year. 

Oliver Bailey, 16, says he doesn't understand why people make such a big deal about letting transgender kids use the bathroom of their choice. (Oliver Bailey )

"They've been really good about it, actually," he said. "They did all they could to accommodate me and I'm allowed to use any bathroom that I like, and there's really not that big of a deal around it."

So he's a bit baffled by controversy over the issue, both at home and south of the border.

"I don't understand why it's an issue. We just need to use the bathroom," he says. 

'It's really just normal'

Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard, 13, agrees. The Grade 8 student attends City View Alternative School in Toronto, where kids are free to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. They also have access to an all-gender washroom, which the school opened in 2013 at the request of students.

"I kind of wonder what the big deal is," Odessa says. "At City View, it's really just normal. Like, it's a washroom."

It was the students who asked for an all-gender washroom at City View Alternative School in Toronto, and student Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard says it hasn't caused any problems or controversy. (Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard)

Odessa identifies as a demi-girl. "I feel like I'm female, but only partially female," she says. 

At her old school, she didn't feel comfortable expressing her gender identity, but says City View's welcoming climate allows her to be herself. The all-gender bathroom is a big part of that.

"It works. It works very well," Odessa says.

'Just give them a place to pee' 

Abby Rath, an 18-year-old student at Richview Collegiate Institute in Toronto, says the whole debate is "ridiculous."

"Transgender people have so much more to worry about. Just give them a place to pee and feel comfortable," she says. 

Abby Rath, seen here in a still image from a friend's film project, says the debate about transgender bathroom access is 'ridiculous.' (Abby Rath )

Abby says she's tired of politicians and school officials who say restricting transgender bathroom access is about protecting students like her. 

"If people are worried, they need to check the numbers," she says. "Trans students are at much more risk of harm than their [cisgender] peers." 

'We're not scary people'

Brynn Emond, 18, Grade 12 student at Ottawa's Glebe Collegiate, agrees. He finds it upsetting to watch what's unfolding in North Carolina, which recently became the first state to require transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings and schools that match the gender on their birth certificate.

"They're just ignorant and they don't understand what the issue is, and they're fearful," says Brynn, a transgender boy. "If these people are told what the issue is and the fact that we're not scary people, there would be no reason for them to be afraid."​

He says there's a big generational gap when it comes to trans acceptance. 

"At school, I don't get crap from students," he says. "All the crap I've ever gotten is from teachers."
Brynn Emond, 18, says there's a generational gap when it comes to trans acceptance. (Brynn Emond)

His school opened an all-gender washroom in the basement after he and his mom approached the principal about accommodation. 

"Bathrooms have been kind of an area of anxiety for me for most of my life," he says. "I'd like to see all all-gender washrooms in every school because I know that's what makes me comfortable."

'It's a really absurd debate'

Vivianne Quang, 17, a Grade 11 student at Western Canada High School in Calgary, says it's "ridiculous" that politicians are arguing about "if someone can pee in a washroom they feel comfortable in."

"It's a really absurd debate, in my opinion" she says. "You can't look at someone and say, 'Oh, you're a male, you can't be in here,' because who knows what they are? Only they can identify themselves."

Vivianne Quang, 17, says the debate over bathroom access is 'absurd' and people should be able to pee wherever they're most comfortable. (Vivianne Quang)

Vivianne is proof positive that gender is more than meets the eye. Most people see her as female, she says, but she has recently started identifying as "agender," meaning without gender.

"Gender is such a social construct that I don't want to restrict myself into a label that would define my interests, my abilities, my hobbies or whatever," she says. "But I know some people really value their binary gender, and that's cool. We need to respect that as well."