Transgender patrons of the Peterborough Sport and Wellness Centre reflect on proposed gender-neutral change rooms

A collage of four photos of young people looking at the camera.
Originally published: https://peterboroughcurrents.ca/community/transgender-patrons-of-pswc/

The City of Peterborough is concluding its second round of community consultations for a proposed redesign to the Peterborough Sport and Wellness Centre (PSWC) that includes a universal locker room with private changing stalls.

The plan has become a controversial topic for many patrons of the PSWC and community members beyond. 

The design, prepared by local architectural firm Lett Architects, proposes to replace the existing layout of three separate change rooms – one for men, one for women and one for families – with a universal locker space with 35 private changing stalls, 11 private showers, plus a group shower off of the pool deck. 

The floor plan for the locker room redesign highlights 35 private changing stalls.
This floor plan from the Lett Architects concept design shows the 35 private changing stalls in red.

During Lett’s Architects design presentation to the City’s arenas, parks and recreation committee on January 14, architect Amanda Motyer said, “The existing change rooms are not inclusive. There are limited accessibility options and they require the user to be able to identify as one of three choices which is male or female or part of a family. We’ve recognized that not everyone identifies as male or female. We also recognize that safety is an important consideration when it comes to washroom and change room design.”

The new design stands to change how many patrons feel about using the facility, and chief among those who will be impacted are transgender patrons. 

Peterborough Currents spoke with four patrons of the PSWC who are transgender to hear their perspective on the proposed change room design.

Erika Foxcrest: “[I wouldn’t] have to worry [that] someone’s going to call security”

Erika Foxcrest has used the Sport and Wellness Centre for five years and she supports the private change rooms plan. “I love it,” she says. “I get that some people say there’s a social element to getting changed. But in my case, even before I transitioned, I didn’t want to interact with people in the change room.”

Foxcrest’s perspective is informed by her experiences using the change rooms at the current facility and being uncomfortable in the men’s change room and also uncomfortable at the prospect of using the women’s. She says she started using the PSWC while in her first semester at Fleming College, “At the time I was still presenting as male and I wasn’t on hormones or anything. I just did not feel comfortable using the women’s change room. But I also felt extremely uncomfortable using the men’s change room.”

A photo of Erika Foxcrest.
Erika Foxcrest was a student at Fleming College when she first used the Wellness Centre. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Foxcrest says she’s a shy person in general and likes her privacy. She also feels concerned in gendered change rooms that other patrons might assume she’s in the wrong space. “I still feel uncomfortable using the women’s change room. So I really think that making that switch to private stalls is going to be so much better because I don’t have to worry about if someone’s going to call security because I’m just trying to get changed.”

One of the things Foxcrest worries about is whether another patron will call security on her. “I worked security for Fleming for a number of years and we got the odd call [from] a patron reporting a transgender individual because they were trying to use the restroom or the change room that they wanted,” she says. “And every time, we’d go, and we’d be like, ‘No, they have every right to be there.’”

Foxcrest says these security calls were always resolved without incident. Still, she says, “I don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want to have someone calling security on me because they think I shouldn’t be in there. I just want to go in, get changed and do my workout.”

For her, the new design proposal stands to solve this problem. In a universal locker room, because everyone has a right to be there, no one will be scrutinized unnecessarily.

Drew Whatman: “I always have caution when I go into a gendered space”

Drew Whatman has been a regular user of the PSWC since September 2019. Like Foxcrest, he supports the plan. “Honestly, I think it’s a great idea,” he says. “It’s the idea of having a space where I don’t have to assess if I’m going to be safe, because I can close the door. That is really nice to me.”

A photo of Drew Whatman
Drew Whatman has been visiting the Wellness Centre for the past two years. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Whatman uses the men’s change room, and when he first started using the facility, he was cautious. “I would say the first couple times that I went, I didn’t feel super comfortable… I always have a certain level of caution when I go into a gendered space. I find that people often can be particularly volatile to the unknown, or things that are confusing to them and unfortunately, trans folks often fall into that category.”

Whatman says he has experienced verbal harassment in public washrooms from hostile strangers, but not at the PSWC.

Currently, the only option for a non-gendered change room is the family change room, which Whatman points out isn’t a good option. “Often, if you’re an adult going in without a child, it makes people uncomfortable, because they don’t really see it as an all-gendered space necessarily.“  

Whatman often plans trips to the gym with a friend, which helps him feel more comfortable. “I feel sort of uncomfortable being in the change room by myself, but I can do it. But the idea of having those private spaces to change and get ready makes me feel like I’d be more likely to go on my own without feeling like I want a buddy.”

He likes the proposed redesign and expects that it would help him and other transgender gym users feel more comfortable. “I think that this change would be a significant improvement in my mind, to allowing people to feel safe in that environment, and hopefully allow more people to access the space. And I know that I would feel significantly more comfortable [when going without a friend].”

Amory Missios: “It’s just not really worth the hassle”

Before the pandemic hit Peterborough, Amory Missios frequented the PSWC several times a week while a student at Fleming College. He understands the new design would be more inclusive, but questions whether the design can handle the volume of gym patrons at peak times and those patrons who may be in a rush. 

“I don’t like [the plan] personally,” he says. “I normally would go first thing in the morning before classes, which gives about an hour to work out and have a shower… If I was doing that [in the redesigned locker room], I might have to struggle to find a shower and a change room and get done in time,” because at peak usage periods, finding an available stall may be a barrier.

“No matter what it’s like, I’m either going to stop using the facilities, or I’m going to not follow the rules because it’s just not really worth the hassle.”

Amory Missios visited the Wellness Centre frequently before the pandemic began. His concerns are that the redesign might slow people down while entering and exiting the facility. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Missios underwent gender affirming surgery to remove breast tissue last year. He reflects that becoming comfortable using the men’s change room was a validating and positive experience while transitioning. “Normally, I’m very covered up all the time. Like before I got top surgery, because even though I grew facial hair and everything, some people look and think, ‘That’s a really ugly woman.’ Whereas going into the men’s room, with not the ideal body and then just seeing everybody else and being like, ‘Oh, well, people come in every shape and size.’”

For Missios, having the space to change around other men has been an affirming experience and one that he would miss if the facility goes forward with the redesign.

Graham MacNeil: “The problem is the culture not the change rooms”

Graham MacNeil has been using the PSWC off-and-on for the past six years. They are non-binary trans, which means they identify as neither a man nor a woman but outside of those two options. MacNeil typically uses the men’s change room and describes the experience as “neutral to unpleasant.”

“I’ve been made uncomfortable on at least two occasions by men who lurk, stare or get too close,” they say in a text message to Peterborough Currents.

Graham MacNeil is non-binary trans, which means they are neither a man nor a woman. They recall being made uncomfortable by other gym patrons on two occasions. (Photo courtesy of Graham MacNeil)

MacNeil says they support the idea of removing gender from the change rooms but question whether the move will work in execution. “The idea behind the genderless change rooms, I’m assuming, is something along the lines of inclusion hinging on the principal of ‘safety in numbers,’” they say. “Unfortunately the gym is still considered a male space and the possibility of me being the only trans person in a change room full of dudes isn’t my ideal and it is a very real possibility.”

They say, “If it’s just me and there are no other women or trans people in the vicinity then it doesn’t really matter how big the change room is or which genders can use it. The real issue is that there are still cisgender people [people who are not transgender], men and women alike, who think that the behaviour they’re exhibiting is acceptable. That because they’re not asking about our genitals or calling us slurs that that makes it okay to stare or make comments to their friends.”

For MacNeil, the redesigned change room won’t address the underlying problem of transphobia that leads to discomfort and harassment in the first place. They say, “The problem is the culture not the change rooms.”

Public survey period ends Thursday

The City’s second phase of public consultations ends on April 22. The City is collecting feedback on the design through an online survey. Of the four individuals Peterborough Currents interviewed for this story, only one indicated they had been contacted directly by the PSWC with an invitation to participate.

Foxcrest says, “I wasn’t aware of it until I heard about it about a week ago.”

“I didn’t get an email or anything about it,” Whatman says. And when he found the information online, he says he thought the information presented alongside the survey does not provide enough context. “There really wasn’t a lot of information provided in my mind explaining the importance of gendered change rooms, versus non-gendered change rooms.”

In a statement to Peterborough Currents, Brendan Wedley, communications manager for the City of Peterborough,  writes that the consultation process involves “ongoing, day-to-day conversations with Wellness Centre users [about] their needs and their expectations.”

“The direction provided to the architect for the project requested that the design be as barrier-free and inclusive as possible. The direction to be inclusive is meant to be inclusive for all users of the facility, regardless of age, culture, gender, abilities or family makeup,” Wedley writes. “The diversity of Wellness Centre users informs the operations and planning for the facility.”

Wedley also writes that the City’s accessibility advisory committee will have an opportunity for input.

You can submit your comments to the PSWC change room survey on the Connect Peterborough website before Thursday April 22, 2021. [end]

Published by Ayesha Barmania

Ayesha Barmania is a journalist-entrepreneur and audio documentary maker, living and working in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.