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.
And gender! And while we're at it, let's tackle orientation, identity and expression.

All of the above have been much in the news lately. To some extent I'm on board. Same sex marriage? Absolutely! Revamp the schools' sex-ed curriculum? Definitely a step in the right direction. Equal legal rights for the gay and trans populations? Bring it on!

But in other respects, I find myself at odds with the received "wisdom". I worry that we are still promoting just as many myths and half-truths about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as we did several decades ago - it's just that those myths and half-truths are different ones. And sometimes it seems that we are so concerned about protecting the rights and comforts of minority groups that we ride roughshod over those of the majority - and ironically end up satisfying neither.

I still remember when the newspaper classified ads had a column labeled "Help wanted: Male" and another one labeled "Help wanted: Female". I remember when bars had a "Gentlemen" entrance and a "Ladies and Escorts" entrance. And while I don't want to go back to those days, I'm a firm believer in sex-specific spaces for certain purposes and activities, or indeed as one option for just about ANY purpose or activity where members of the community see a need for it.

For example: I was glad that Girl Guides decided to remain female-only. I think it's vitally important for girls to have access to strong positive female role models. That's true when they're very young - the Sparks and Brownies - but also as they get older, going through Guides, Pathfinders, junior or senior leaders, whatever the steps are. Because although adolescent girls are hopefully aware that yes, women can be engineers and plumbers and surgeons just as men can, I still see a value for having spaces in which girls and young women can interact and share their innermost thoughts and aspirations, without worrying about what the boys or the men may think or do. What about Scouts becoming coeducational? I don't know. It seems to me that there's a value in having some of the groups remain all-male for those who prefer that option.

Some Women's Centres admit men, at least some of the time; others don't. In the mid-1970s, the Ottawa Women's Centre on Somerset Street did not. I thoroughly enjoyed attending their programs, particularly the Consciousness-Raising group. Frankly it would have been a far different and less positive experience if men had been allowed as participants or observers. By the 1980s (or maybe long before that), men were forming their own groups, doing drumming circles or whatever - and that's always been fine with me. And for reasons which to me (and I suspect most men) are obvious, places like battered women's shelters have always been circumspect about their location, to guard against violent current or ex-husbands and -boyfriends tracking down "their" womenfolk.

I could go on. Same-sex education, at least in certain subjects; courses like "Home repair for women" or "Meal planning for men" based on the often quite-warranted assumption that their upbringing and/or education may have left them lacking in certain practical skills. Health care facilities and athletic clubs which limit their membership to one sex or the other.

But here's the thing. A large part of the rationale for same-sex spaces is to have forums (fora?) where women (or men) can interact on their own terms, liberated from the spectre of sexual attraction and/or sexual interference. The moment that the gay, lesbian and trans communities enter these spaces, all bets, as it were, are off. Which is, I suppose, a large part of the reason that the LGBTQQ community has been demanding and creating its own "safe" spaces.

So today I'm going to address what I see as a few of the most prevalent myths and half-truths of the modern era. I know that to a lot of people, what I'm writing is politically incorrect in the extreme, but hey - this is my blog and I call it how I see it.

#1 - Being gay is not a choice

It's true that we don't choose who(m) we're attracted to. We may not even fully understand ourselves why we're attracted to one person but not another. But the decision to enter (or not to enter) into a relationship with another person IS (or at least OUGHT to be) a choice. If I suddenly find myself attracted to, say, a priest who is obliged to remain celibate, or to a co-worker (especially if that co-worker happens to be my boss or someone I supervise), or even just to a man or woman whom I know to be happily married to someone else, then as far as is reasonably possible, I'm going to keep myself out of the path of temptation.

Besides, I rather subscribe to the view that there aren't really gay PEOPLE, only gay relationships. Some people do lean more towards one or the other but ultimately, it's INDIVIDUALS whom we love, not orientations.

#2 - Gender identity is set and immutable by the age of three or four

Nonsense, I say! And by the way, same goes for sexual orientation ("gay gene", anyone?)
I do accept that children are sexual beings, perhaps right from the beginning. Many children masturbate from a very early age. But children, certainly throughout adolescence and early adulthood if not beyond, are still in the process of becoming full-fledged, fully-rounded people; they are "finding themselves" as we used to say in the sixties. We wouldn't expect a three-year-old to know definitively that she wants to be a doctor or lawyer or grand First Nations Chief when she grows up. In fact, it's becoming increasingly rare for people to remain in just one career or occupation over their entire working life. We decry - and rightly so - cultures where girls are married off at the age of eight or nine, usually to boys and men many years older than they are, yet somehow we think a preschooler innately knows whether he'll grow up to be a man or a woman or straight or gay. Personally I don't see any logic in that.

#3 - There's no such thing as the "gender binary"

Yes, I know about inter-sex people. I know about some of the odd genetic configurations like XXY and XYY. But it's very rare. Generally speaking, if you put 100 random people into a room, about half will be readily identifiable as male and another half readily identifiable as female. Even if they're fully clothed. Moreover, I can't think of any other human characteristic that so readily divides the human race roughly in half. You can't say, for example, that half the world's humans are black and the other half white. Or that half have brown eyes and half have blue eyes. That's not the same thing as saying that the characteristics of men and boys versus those of women and girls are mutually exclusive. We are all human, after all, and more alike than we are different!

When a man says he is "really" a woman or a woman says she is "really" a man, that presupposes he knows what truly defines or constitutes womanhood and that she knows what truly defines or constitutes manhood. Isn't that a little presumptuous? Surely it is up to those who are already clearly and demonstrably under the "male" or "female" umbrella to define the quintessential nature of manliness or womanliness? Following the logic typically promoted by the trans movement, it is discriminatory to, for example, deny a "trans woman" access to a female-only space. Even though she has probably had a male upbringing and socialization and possesses a well-ingrained male sense of entitlement. Murray McLauchlan asked "Just who made the map of a man and a woman's life from beginning to end?" If the point is to broaden accepted social or psychological notions of who a woman or man should be and what s/he should do in life and how s/he should behave, then great! It illustrates that at least to a great extent, anatomy is NOT destiny. But why should we start letting MEN map out women's lives and WOMEN map out men's? And given that we are getting farther and farther away from the anatomy-as-destiny inevitability, surely it is a big mistake to strive to change destiny by altering the anatomy; to, as Gloria Steinem put it, change the foot if the shoe doesn't fit?

When even the medical profession is embracing (though admittedly with a few safeguards) the "change the foot" approach, I can't help feeling that the world has gone crazy. A few decades from now, as we progress (at least in this part of the world) towards equality of the sexes, will health care professionals look back and ask "What on earth were we thinking?"

At least with adults, however, we can normally assume that they know their own minds and can pursue whatever medical care they feel is right for them, in consultation with the medical professionals involved. I'm much more concerned about the ethics of allowing minor children to embark too far on the path to gender reassignment. Because they're still very much in the process of growing and becoming and to do anything irreversible or difficult-to-reverse at this stage is, I believe, irresponsible if not immoral. The families of these kids are certainly well-meaning and it's to their credit that they are willing to go to bat for their kids and offer them unconditional love and acceptance. But I really think that when children, especially very young ones, claim to "know" that they are the other gender, it's usually because of adult attitudes they have unconsciously absorbed and been exposed to. Or even a bid for attention, although I think in that case it would die a natural death once adults started taking them seriously.

Will they pin all their hopes and dreams on breaking out of the confines of their closet, only to find themselves stuck permanently in Narnia?
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.
In my lifetime, I have witnessed a sea change in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ community.

When I was around eleven or twelve, the attitude of parents, teachers and other authority figures towards same-sex attraction was generally that until the age of, say, eighteen or twenty-one, it was not really to be taken seriously - a youthful indiscretion, nothing more. Or perhaps a question of seeking out a role model. The attitude of most other adolescents, however, seemed to be that it was something to avoid being associated with at all costs! I remember girls in my class saying silly things like, "You wouldn't believe my three-year-old cousin - she's a real LEZ!" As if any kind of physical affection demonstrated by a little kid towards an older one of the same gender were to be construed in a sexual, and therefore unsavory manner.

Of course, sex education in the schools in those days left a lot to be desired - and goodness only knows what kind of desiring went on in our teenaged hearts and minds and behind closed bedroom doors! In grade seven, girls got to see that "special health film". The cloying images of hearts and flowers and birds and bees and romanticized statements about the miracle of new life were far removed from the considerable discomfort I was already experiencing every month with my newly-arrived womanhood.

As we progressed through high school, we got stern warnings about the perils of "going all the way" which included the spectres of gonorrhea, syphilis and unwanted pregnancy. We didn't know about AIDS then and I don't even recall discussion of chlamydia. We got to see a film called "Phoebe" about a girl who discovers right at the beginning of the film that she is pregnant. The remainder of the film consists or her fantasizing about the possible reactions of her parents, teachers and boyfriend when she breaks the news to them.

But homosexuality, bisexuality and gender identity were not discussed. Of course, that was Before Stonewall and before Jan Morris, though certainly not before Christine Jorgensen.

What a difference a few decades makes. Gay marriage is now legal in Canada. A decision not to allow Jenna Talackova, né male, to compete in the Miss Universe Canada competition, was recently reversed. We've come a long way, baby, but we've still got some distance to go. Next month, when Bill C-279 (the Trans Rights Bill) comes up for debate in Parliament, we should make our views known and urge our MP's to support it.



October 2017



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