When James Spencer switched schools to avoid bullies the last place he thought he’d run into them again was at the main office.
But that’s exactly what Spencer, a 16-year-old who transitioned from female to male, says happened when Clarke High School in Durham Region barred him from using the men’s washroom.
Despite collecting the signatures of about half the students in the school, Spencer is still not allowed to use the men’s washroom. He’s been granted access to the women’s washroom and a private washroom that needs a key from the main office — neither of which work for him.
“I thought, ‘They’re figuring it out, it’s temporary,’ but as time went on they’re portraying the message that transgender people are wrong and they need to be segregated. And I don’t sit well with that,” said Spencer.
Spencer was born Samantha De Graauw. He began transitioning in Grade 10 while at school in Cobourg. Then the rumours and bullying started. He moved in with his sister and enrolled at the new school in Clarington as James Spencer. Sex? Male.
During his first week and a half, he said he was asked to go to the bathroom at a Harvey’s beside the school while the administration found a solution. Officials deny sending the student off-site.
“I think we have to be careful that we accommodate students as best we can, but we also have to be conscious that not everyone might feel comfortable with that at this point,” Martin Twiss, superintendent of education at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, said. “I think we have to do some education and some preparatory work to make sure that it’s managed in a way that everybody understands the situation and it’s managed safely.”
Twiss called a Tuesday meeting with Spencer “constructive,” and said they’re trying to make the private washroom accessible without a key.
“Certainly while there are trans people who find gender-neutral bathrooms the best solution for them, forcing a trans person to use a gender-neutral bathroom is not itself an appropriate answer,” said j wallace, executive director of the LGBT Youth Line, a support line for gay and lesbian youth. He spent six years working with schools in Halton Region on issues around sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It really is a process of setting someone apart and saying, ‘We consider you different.’ Really what we want to build in schools is a climate that fosters respect, equity and inclusion.”
Spencer travelled from class to class, telling his story publicly and collecting signatures on a petition of support. He’s spoken to about half of the 450 students at Clarke High School so far — only three didn’t sign.
“I pretty much came out to the entire school with that petition and the students were phenomenal and I didn’t expect that much support or acceptance from the students,” said Spencer. “But I also expected more support from the school board (and the) principal.”
The Toronto District School Board recently enshrined policies that they say have long been informal practice, allowing transgendered students to use the washroom that corresponds with their identity, or to use a gender neutral one if they feel more comfortable.
Earlier this year, Toby’s Act became law, adding protection of “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
“I’m happy that there have been some suggestions and steps forward but I really don’t understand why certain things just can’t be done and over with already,” Spencer said. “Some of them seem rather simple to me.”