Some time in the 70s, there used to be a TV commercial for CN Rail saying that before the national railway was built, we lacked a convenience that Canadians nowadays take for granted. My dad once harumphed with his usual dry humour that Canada was still quite lacking in public "conveniences"!

Today is World Toilet Day. Over a billion people worldwide still lack access to a toilet. At least a billion more live in impoverished areas which lack proper sanitation, where people become seriously ill or even die from diseases that could be easily prevented, treated or cured in the developed world.

But while Third World toiletlessness certainly has the most dramatic and catastrophic repercussions, toilet politics are by no means confined to the developing world.

With light rail coming to Ottawa, folks are urging the City to ensure that adequate public toilet facilities are available in the major stations. And yes, there's an app for that. The "Gottago" app available through your smartphone will tell you how close you are to the nearest public washroom. And probably map out how to get there too.

Probably coincidentally, tomorrow is Trans Day of Remembrance, a day when trans and gender-fluid folks and those supportive of them gather downtown to remember victims of transphobia. Remember the kerfuffle about the transgender rights Bill? It got bogged down (pun definitely intended), all because quite a number of gender-normative folks were uneasy about the possibility of voyeuristic trans-women and cross-dressers wreaking havoc on ladies' rooms. Some pretty harsh and unladylike words were exchanged on all sides!

Personally, I think the washroom issue is and should be kept entirely separate from the LGBTQ rights issue. The fact is, plenty of people - in all walks of life and of all family statuses and degrees of disability and sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions - are uncomfortable using many public washrooms as they currently exist. And the solution is probably not (or not primarily) a legislative one, in my opinion. But a public facility warrants public consultation (or at least the opportunity for consultation) with all interested stakeholders - which in this case is virtually everyone!

The move towards "Family Washrooms" in many shopping malls and other public places is a good start. Change tables in the Gents' as well as the Ladies'. Or more of the unisex one-holers. When there are stalls, they should be fairly roomy if possible, and equipped for folks with wheelchairs and walkers. And of course, they need to be properly serviced and maintained!

So often, toilet facilities are either an afterthought or an excuse for discrimination. Well, we can't have women working on a construction site because they can't pee into a bottle. We can't hire anyone who relies on a wheelchair or walker because our only washrooms are up a long flight of steps. And so on.

We certainly have the technology and the necessary infrastructure in this part of the world to build and make adequate facilities available to all who need them. But do we have the will?

I think we do, but in order to make it happen, we need to come out of the closet - in this case, the water closet - and actually talk about it.
I quite like participative and collaborative art projects, especially when they make nice progressive statements. So I was intrigued when I read about the "gay sweater", made of human hair - the hair of hundreds of LGBTQ Canadians - and adorned with rainbow buttons. The sweater is the brainchild of Jeremy Dias, Amelia Lyon and Brenna MacDonald of the Canadian Centre of Gender and Diversity (formerly Jer's Vision), and is to be officially unveiled at a tenth anniversary Day of Pink gala on April 8.

Now this Centre - and these people - have done a lot to address the problems of homophobia, transphobia and bullying in the schools and beyond. The great thing about art (and I think this would probably apply to ALL the arts) is that it can appeal to us - or, for that matter, disgust us - on many different levels. Good art, to me at least, is laden, perhaps sometimes unconsciously, with myriad connotations and overtones. But the greatest strength of art may also be its greatest weakness. If you want to denote a clear and unambiguous message like "Just say no" or "Bullying is never OK", then art is a pretty blunt instrument.

The connotations of a hair shirt (or if you want to, well, split hairs, hair sweater) are to me particularly unfortunate for a project of this nature, suggesting penitence and asceticism. Do these people want to be "cured" of a pathological sexual orientation or gender identity, through electric shock, aversion therapy, "supportive" counselling or whatever? I rather think not! It almost seems to convey the opposite message to gay pride.

Perhaps the problem is that today's generation of young adults, at least those who are not from devout families and have gone through the secularized public school system, are not familiar with the Bible or indeed with any major religious text, be it Islamic or Aslanic - sorry, I still have Narnia on the brain. They haven't studied them even in the context of our literary, historical or overall cultural heritage.

But taken as a whole, the younger generations tend to be far more accepting of gender variance and diverse sexual preferences than was our generation - or our parents' or grandparents' generation. If this project only reaches out to kids and young adults, it is to a great extent preaching to the converted (well, perhaps unconverted is more to the point here). If they want to reach out to old fogeys like us, then they need to speak to us using the lingo and imagery that old fogeys can understand - at an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

Or maybe I'm the one who is missing the point. Maybe they deliberately appropriated the motif of the hair shirt, and transformed it into a gay sweater of many colours by weaving it of "gay" hair and adorning it with rainbow-patterned buttons?

I don't know. But I would welcome the opportunity to go and view this artistic creation some time!
Men's speedskating. Women's speedskating. Men's hockey. Women's hockey. Are these categories inclusive enough? Are they even relevant any more?

Are there sports where men have an inherent advantage over women? Or where women have an inherent advantage over men? Probably. But whence cometh this advantage?

If we're saying that men have the advantage over women, is it a PHYSICAL advantage? Is it down to men's generally larger size and proportionally greater strength? If so, maybe the answer is to categorize athletes the way they do, for example, in boxing, with heavyweights, welterweights, bantamweights or whatever.

Perhaps the advantage is SOCIOCULTURAL in nature, down to burqas or stiletto heels not being very practical attire for walking balance beams, or lack of the most desirable (or perhaps ANY) ice-times for hockey, or whatever. If so, that's obviously always in a state of flux, and considerably more rapid flux than we would expect of any evolutionary physical rapprochement between the sexes!

And then there's another whole can of worms. Just who decides what makes someone a man or a woman? Is it a question of genes and chromosomes? Of hormones? Of genitalia? Of self-identification? Tennis player Renee Richards (formerly Richard Raskind) argued in her memoir, Second Serve, that it was unfair for her to still have to compete as a male once she had begun hormonal treatments towards transforming Richard to Renee, because she had nowhere near the muscle-mass of the male players. But was it fair for other WOMEN to have to compete against someone who was still betwixt and between, still possibly having some male physical advantages, not to mention the sociocultural ones?

Do we need to add categories for the transgendered, gender-fluid, two-spirited, intersex (etc., etc.) communities? That could easily degenerate into an exercise in futility and absurdity, not to mention perhaps constituting illegal propaganda over in Sochi!

Maybe most Olympic categories should be mixed - that is open to men, women and any shade of sex or gender expression in between. I suppose they could still, for example, offer 3 sets of gold, silver and bronze medals for the first, second and third man to finish the (integrated) race; the first, second and third woman; and the first, second and third "other".

But of course, that's problematic too. Some countries would never countenance men and women appearing freely in public together, let alone competing in something very physical and (though perhaps less so in winter) wearing body-revealing garments.

Then too, where does it end? Do we need categories based on race as well? There's probably plenty of evidence that certain races are more apt to excel in certain sports - taller races in basketball, for example. Is it fair to make someone who's under five feet tall compete with someone who's seven feet tall?

To be sure, there ARE additional Olympic games. The Paralympics, for example, where the athletes all have some degree of physical disability. The Special Olympics for those with intellectual disabilities. I believe there's even a "Gay Games", though I think it has yet to match the fame or level of credibility of either the Paralympics or Special Olympics.

Mind you, even competition on the basis of nationality can be problematic. But that's a topic for another time.
On January 2, The Citizen had on its front page an article about a woman who argued - unsuccessfully - that her wide, square-toed feet constituted a disability and that OC Transpo was guilty of violating her human rights by its policy of disallowing bare feet on its buses.

WHAT? Is she crazy? She wants to go about BAREFOOT during an Ottawa winter? Her feet didn't look that abnormal to me and you absolutely cannot convince me that it would be impossible to make suitable custom footwear to fit her feet! Supposing they had allowed her complaint. If she subsequently got frostbitten toes, would OC Transpo be liable for that as well?

Anyway, the question "Must we change the foot?" is generally attributed to Gloria Steinem. In the context I read it, she was writing about the politics and logistics of gender reassignment surgery, or "sex change operations". And my answer to her question, which she may have meant rhetorically (and may even have changed her mind about in the interim) would be "In most cases, no - although there are exceptions to every rule."

That's not a very popular stance to take these days. The prevailing view of the medical profession is that the physical reality must be altered to conform to the psychological one rather than the other way around. I'm prepared to allow for things like electrolysis and hormonal rebalancing through drugs but when it comes to surgical treatments (which for all intents and purposes need to be considered irreversible), I believe that the doctors are generally doing the transsexuals themselves (unless they were actually born with ambiguous or improperly functioning genitalia), and to some extent society at large, a grave disservice.

Now, there is of course no excuse for discrimination against the transgendered, or any other element of the LGBTQ community. Their money is as good as anyone else's and they need to rent apartments, study, obtain employment, and so forth, just like anybody else. But all rights are subject to "reasonable limitation" - and certainly things like self-expression or gender expression are too broad to be absolute rights. If I were to divulge secrets about my employer or my government, or if I were to go around deliberately being rude and obnoxious in whatever inappropriate forum I chose, I certainly wouldn't turn around and try to file a human rights complaint because I felt my freedom of self-expression was violated.

I also have to say that a majority of transgendered folk I've met, whether in person or through the pages of books they've written, strike me as having very traditional views of sex roles in our society. Perhaps part of the problem I have with all of this is that I tend to be something of a separatist radical feminist in my outlook. For example, I'm very much in favour of Brownies and Guides being limited to girls and women, with strong positive female role models. I also think that same-sex education in the schools makes a lot of sense, at least as one option, especially for certain subjects and grade levels.

Another way to interpret the question "Must we change the foot?" could be slightly less literally. For example, if women want to be out of the labour force, or to work part-time, during their childbearing years, it seems to me that career models must be in place to accommodate them. Law firms with their "billable hours" requirements, for example, tend to be antithetical to many women's life and career goals. And is there any such thing as being a part-time Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister or Prime Minister? Not likely! So a woman who aspires to these roles, in many cases, is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, forced to adopt a male-like career model that doesn't suit her needs.



October 2017



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