I was at a walk-in clinic near Toronto when I vaguely overheard a patient asking about a doctor. The receptionist replied that the doctor in question had become a woman.
The conversation did not develop far enough for me to piece together information about the doctor, who has peaked my curiosity. But that chance encounter made me realize that the next frontier in the workplace is accommodating people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT).
In fact, that reality is already here. Apart from legislative developments that advance LGBT rights in the public sphere, those that affect workplaces include Parliament’s removal of prohibition on LGBTs to serve in the Canadian military in 1992 and the extension of many same-sex benefits, including health and relocation benefits, to federal employees in 1996 — the same year in which the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation explicitly as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Most provinces and territories have also added sexual orientation to their human-rights codes.
As Canada’s human-rights laws protect people from discrimination based on factors that do not relate to personal merit or valid job requirements, employers who contravene the human-rights statutes can pay a hefty price. In 2013, a former Ottawa prison guard, who is gay, was awarded $98,000 in damages for harassment related to his sexual orientation.
But practical issues of accommodating LGBTs in workplaces remain thorny. One relates to the use of gender-specific bathrooms. In 2013, the House of Commons passed Bill C-279, which makes it illegal to discriminate against transgender people in Canada and requires courts to recognize and penalize hate crimes against trans people. This past February, Conservative Senator Don Plett introduced three amendments to the bill. One of these amendments, which exempt places like prisons, crisis centres and public washrooms and change rooms from the bill’s provisions, has drawn ire from the LGBT community. Senator Plett argued that this amendment protects public safety by prohibiting biological males who identify themselves as females to access vulnerable persons in places like ladies’ bathrooms and women’s shelters. This concern stems from a case involving a man named Christopher Hambrook, who claimed to be a transgender and gained access to a women’s shelter in Toronto, where he sexually assaulted two women in 2012.
There is no simple answer to this complex issue. According to a best-practices guide on restroom access for transgender workers by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington, D.C., some options that employers can consider include single-occupancy unisex facilities and multiple-occupancy, gender-neutral restroom facilities with lockable single-occupant stalls.
While access to bathrooms presents a logistical challenge that needs to be further refined in both workplaces and society at large, the direction of embracing diversity in all its hues has already carved out a distinctive path. Profound changes have taken place in our lifetimes relating to gender, race and suffrage, and there is little reason why breaking down barriers should stop at LGBTs. Many companies in Canada have already embraced inclusion and diversity: TD has put in place guidelines on workplace gender transition; LGBT employees of Google Canada call themselves “Gayglers”; and the Royal Bank celebrates National Coming Out Day.
Like old habits, prejudices die hard. Time offers the best hindsight. Just as many deeply entrenched prejudices widely accepted in the past would be considered faux pas today, in time, we would look back on policies and discourses that discriminate against LGBTs with disgust and wonder why it took us so long to see the light.