Responses to new “EMPOWER Hours” at the Mt. A Fitness Centre

On November 12, students received an email from Pierre Arsenault, Director of Athletics at Mt. A, announcing a new program being piloted in collaboration with the MASU. The hours, offered on Mondays from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. and Wednesdays from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. beginning November 22, were developed to combat instances of sexual violence in the fitness centre. However, students raised concerns over the language used and intent of the hours.

An initial set of interviews was conducted after this announcement.

“The first time I heard about this policy, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. While I knew the intentions were positive, I was immediately worried about repercussions,” said Eli Wood. He explained that “female-only” hours have “deep roots in bio-essentialist ideas imposed on trans men and [are] often weaponized against trans women and other trans folks.” However, he noted that the language was a superficial concern. He first became aware of this program through an SAC report from October, at which time the program was described as “she/her, non-binary hours.” Wood said that this description “is just as problematic. It assumes that women are using she/her pronouns and lumps women and non-binary folks together. This typically means that those non-binary folks become viewed in a sort of ‘woman-lite’ way.”

When Wood and his peers expressed their concerns online, he said that they were met with an abundance of trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) ideology on social media and in private message. “I was told that no one masculine-presenting should be in the gym, including trans men, non-binary folks, and trans women,” explained Wood. “I was told it would be invasive for the cis women to have any sort of masculinity in the gym, and that folks should ‘look like a woman.’” Wood also noted that the initial announcement was made one day before the beginning of Trans Awareness Week. “I find a sick irony in the fact that this year, I have a list of names in my messages of people who don’t believe we should exist or have rights,” he said.

Wood said that this program could create “a dangerous space for trans folks,” especially for transmasculine, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals. “I believe this policy, while its intention may be pure, is entirely problematic,” he said. “It will place other trans folks in the same place we are trying to protect cis women from.”

“Regardless of what you call it, ‘women only’ or ‘female only,’ part of that is rooted in transmisogyny and trans exclusionary feminism,” said Helen Yao. She also believes the program does little to address the root causes of sexual violence.

“Sexual violence is such a complex issue that you can’t solve it by saying that we are just going to exclude a certain demographic and that everything will be okay,” said Yao. “We can’t approach sexual violence in this binary way by saying that it’s only cis men assaulting cis women.” They explained that: “any student, regardless of gender identity, may feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, or incompetent attending the gym.” Yao believes eliminating a demographic from the gym during certain hours will not eliminate the problem, as sexual violence often exists at the intersection of racism, ableism, fatphobia, classism, sexism, and transphobia. “[The] problem with [the program] is that it’s not a very productive way of approaching sexual assault and it comes at the cost of potentially harming trans and gender nonconforming students,” they said.

Yao believes that rather than creating a specified time for some people to feel safer at the gym, more effort should be put into eliminating toxic masculinity, patriarchal violence, and other types of discrimination at all hours. “If someone who’s working out there is behaving in a problematic matter, demonstrating to them that this space is being reclaimed, and if they’re going to behave in harmful ways, they’re not welcome,” she said.

At the November 14 meeting of the SAC it was clarified that the initial email was sent without the MASU’s knowledge, and that language in it did not reflect the original intent of the hours, which “has always been [to include] all gender minorities and transgender students.” They clarified that “students will not be asked to disclose any information on their gender, but it will be assumed that everyone there will belong.”

On November 22, an email to students from Charlie Burke, MASU President, provided an update on the program, renamed “EMPOWER Hours.” “EMPOWER hours is a targeted program that strives to promote equitable participation and access to physical activity for self-identified women (women includes all cis and trans individuals who identify as a woman),” says the email. The announcement also notes that “non-binary individuals who see themselves as partially or sometimes identifying and feel they would benefit from accessing a women-centered space are welcome to join.”

Another set of interviews was conducted after the second announcement.

“My reaction to the newest announcement is largely disappointment,” said Wood. “Given the extent of feedback of transgender folks about this project, I had hoped solid action would’ve been taken by now.” He said that this release did not address the main concerns with the program, that were not with the language “but rather the exclusion of the project exemplified by the language.” He also added that the attempt to clarify language was still exclusionary, expressing concern at the mention of “self-identified women” and “non-binary individuals who…feel they would benefit from accessing a women-centred space.” Wood said: “It merely proves that trans women are being viewed as a separate kind of woman—they aren’t, they’re just women—and that non-binary folks are being viewed as ‘women-lite.’”

Yao also expressed concerns regarding the newest announcement. “The phrasing on non-binary folks feels particularly off-putting to me,” they said. “The conditions of that welcome is that you must be femme enough, or you must leave behind parts of your identity in order to enter. Being nonbinary isn’t ‘diet women’… Being nonbinary means to be nonbinary.”

Yao also believes that the new policy still does not address root causes of sexual violence and is therefore an ineffective solution “Having two or however many women-only hours a week is not going to prevent individuals from acting in predatory ways outside of those hours, or even within those hours for that matter,” she said.

Hope Salmonson was upset when she first heard about the “female-only hours.” “However, I had some faith that the decision was at least made with good intentions,” they said. They and Yao reached out to and met with the MASU to discuss the concerns raised by themselves and others. “Language of empowerment was brought up in the meeting,” said Salmonson. For example, Salmonson and Yao had suggested alternatives such as training for staff and community members and voluntary, inclusive programming to create welcoming support networks as a form of empowerment for all gym-users and marginalized groups. “While the sentiment stayed, all of the actionable ideas from that meeting seem to have been scrapped, leaving an even more conservative program than before,” said Salmonson.

“Anybody who goes in that space will be viewed, explicitly or implicitly, as a woman,” said Salmonson. “And any person, trans or cis, who doesn’t feel comfortable in a ‘women-centered’ space will receive no ‘empowerment’ from the hours.” While the program has been established to counter sexual violence, Salmonson believes it will not have the intended effect. “Trans people are constantly surveilled based on whether we fit the mold that cisgender spaces create,” she said. “‘Women-only’ spaces, no matter how catchy the name, are an act of transphobic and transmisogynistic violence.”

“I am very disheartened by their lack of consultation with the community,” said Yao. She felt as though the responses to the initial announcement were not considered. “Despite the best of intentions, this policy creates dangerous situations where students are surveilled on the basis of if they are ‘female’ and non-threatening enough to use this space,” they said.

Salmonson called for better representation of trans people in decision-making positions at every level. “The amount of blatant ignorance can only be chalked up to cis leaders not consulting properly with the affected groups,” she said. She is disappointed that the direct feedback they and others had given were not reflected in the new announcement, and encouraged others to provide feedback. “I am still open to working with the MASU on improving this initiative, and I sincerely hope that other voices will continue to speak up on this serious issue,” they said.

The MASU has declined to comment on this most recent announcement or student responses to it.

In the November 22 email, they stated: “We also want to recognize the problematic nature of a gender binary, while respecting that gender based violence does exist (and will not be tolerated in the Fitness Centre).” The MASU has committed to consultation and research, and provided a survey link in the email to give feedback on the program.

“The comfort of cisgender folks will never outweigh the safety of trans folks,” said Wood. He believes that while the intention of this program was positive, its broader implications are representative of deeper problems on campus. “The fitness centre cannot become more inclusive until the entire campus is,” said Wood. “We cannot have specified pockets of inclusion unless the entire dominant ideologies and rape culture of Mount A is dismantled.”

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