Controversy over a female-only spa's "no male genitals" policy has reignited debate over the rights of transgender people to access traditionally gender-exclusive spaces, even as the federal government pushes stronger protections prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression.
The uproar over Toronto's Body Blitz Spa prompted a flurry of complaints on social media, with longtime regular Shelley Marshall among those vowing to boycott the luxurious retreat.
Marshall says she tried to bring her transgender friend to the spa last year but was told she would only be welcome at the bathing suit-optional facility if she had undergone sex reassignment surgery.
"I didn't want to embarrass my friend, I didn't want to humiliate my friend, I didn't want all this to happen," Marshall says of not speaking out at the time. "I'm embarrassed I never stuck up for my friend."
Toronto-based LGBTQ author Jia Qing Wilson-Yang tweeted last week that she was told not to visit the spa because they "won't allow male genitalia."
That followed a Facebook post by Weronika Jane who says the spa's manager called a friend one hour before their booking "to say that they couldn't come because they had a 'no male genital rule."'
Body Blitz refused to comment on the issue, but released a statement insisting it supports the LGBTQ community.
"However, because Body Blitz Spa is a single-sex facility with full nudity, we are not like other facilities. We recognize that this is an important discussion for single-sex facilities to have and we will seek to find a satisfactory resolution," reads the statement.
Some people found the position comforting.
"Thank you for standing up for women. Private spaces for naked female bodies. Identity irrelevant," said one social media supporter, signed Rachel Ralison.
But the whole flap has been disappointing to client and York University Prof. Sheila Cavanagh, who specializes in gender and sexuality studies.
She says that aside from violating provincial laws governing gender discrimination, such incidents highlight the difficulty in adhering to strictly binary definitions of gender.
"There are many ways of being trans and there are many ways of being a woman," says Cavanagh, noting that trans rights are enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code.
"And certainly surgery or hormones, per se, do not make a woman.... I think it's gender identity that matters and what is between our legs is our own business."
She notes that not all trans people transition with surgeries and not all trans people use or take hormones.
Transgender is also a very broad term. Some transgender people identify as bi-gender or non-gender or agender, which means they don't strictly identify as a man or a woman. Still others are intersex, which the National Health Service in the United Kingdom defines as a genetic "mix of male and female sexual characteristics."
Cavanagh says the rules around gender-exclusive places are typically based on fears that men will enter a space in which they are not welcome or "that non-trans women will somehow be triggered or made afraid by the presence of a penis."
But Cavanagh says her research on violence in gendered bathrooms found no evidence of a trans woman assaulting a non-trans woman in a public space.
"The fear of violence against women is unfortunately used to justify trans-exclusion policies," she says, noting that many women shelters have trans-positive policies.
"It's not just violence against cis-gendered women, it's also violence against trans women that matters."
Marshall says she can't see how a trans-positive policy could be abused.
"I don't think a man is going to try and sneak in as a woman and pay $75 to go sit (in a pool). For what purpose?"
But she sees all sorts of ways a trans-phobic policy can hurt a trans person.
"A trans person has to live as a woman before they can get surgery," says Marshall. "This is just another way of telling them: you have no place in our society."
Cavanagh takes heart in believing Bill C-16 is likely to pass. The federal legislation would bolster existing provincial laws that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. Currently, trans rights are interpreted in various ways by each province.
Adding weight to this movement are the increasing number of businesses and public bodies making their trans-positive policies more explicit.
Many school boards welcome transgender students and staff to use the washroom or change room of the gender they identify with.
At the national fitness chain GoodLife, members are able to use the change room of the gender they identify with, while various YMCAs across the continent have opened gender-neutral change rooms.
Despite this, harassment continues, says Cavanagh.
"In addition to developing a policy, members need to be educated so that transphobia isn't allowed under the auspices of women's safety."