The Difficulties in Remembering Rosa

RosaRibutIn the early morning hours of November 24th, the body of a possibly trans person was found in Edmonton, Alberta.

I say “possibly trans” because it’s unclear how this person identified, and to my knowledge, no one in the trans community has met them or would be able to shed light on who they were.  And unfortunately, for this reason, I need to open with the following preamble:

The victim has been identified by the Edmonton Police Service as Jon Syah Ribut.  However, she also used the names Rose, Rosa and Dido. In the Edmonton Journal, Paula Simons noted that  “… it’s not clear whether Ribut saw himself as transgender — or as a gay man who sometimes liked to cross-dress — or as something else altogether….” Although Simons (a journalist who is is trans-aware and trans-positive) uses male names and pronouns, it’s clear that she’s conflicted about it and knows that more information is needed.  I will be using a female name and pronouns instead, but want to stress that both Simons and I are making a guess, and either of us could just as easily be wrong.

Rosa Ribut died of blunt force trauma, and 20-year-old Marcel Cristian Niculae has been charged in her death.  There is no further information being given yet as to what happened or what the motive might have been.

Ribut, 35, was an Indonesian citizen who came to Canada in 2012 under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.  She had been working at a 7-Eleven in that capacity (presenting as male), but had also taken up working evenings as a female-presenting escort.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program allows employers to bring in foreign workers and employ them for below minimum wage, with fewer regulations governing employer obligations to staff.  Temporary foreign workers are not eligible for public health care coverage or other social programs, and lose their residency if they quit their jobs, the net result of which is a more vulnerable and dependent workforce.  While there is no indication that the TFW program was used to bring her to Canada for sex work, a temporary worker employed at a 7-Eleven convenience store wouldn’t have had it very easy making ends meet on that income alone.

Ribut was from Indonesia, where “warias” (often characterized as males born with female souls — it’s not known if Ribut identified in this way) had once been traditionally respected.  However, trans people in Indonesia have been increasingly ostracized and have also faced challenges to their legal status over the years.  More recently, trans women have been targeted by vice raids that conflate trans people with sex workers, regardless of whether they are or not. In some parts of the country, the Muslim group Islam Defenders Front (FPI) have waged a cultural campaign against trans people, intimidating advocates and forcing the closure of trans and LGBT functions, while the National Police have been reluctant to intervene.

While it’s possible that Rosa Ribut was targeted for violence because of her gender, certainly the marginalization that sex workers experience made her vulnerable to the attack, and her escorting work is thought to be a contributing factor to the events of her murder.  December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and the murder of Rosa Ribut is a tragic reminder of the brutality that sex workers sometimes face.  Trans people have a similar memorial in November of every year, but it should also be recognized how people of intersecting minority characteristics (trans status, sex work, race and / or the poverty-classed) can experience a disproportionately high amount of hatred, violence and risk.

Little about Rosa is known, other than details culled from her Facebook page (now offline).  According to the Edmonton Journal:

“His friends called him Rosa or Rose or Dido. For them, he posted pictures of himself enjoying the Edmonton winter — frolicking in the snow at the legislature grounds, shopping on trendy 104th Street. People tend to curate their Facebook pages to put the happiest gloss on our lives. But certainly, nothing in Ribut’s Facebook timeline suggests he was in Edmonton under duress. He joked online that he was a snow princess, who’d come here to find his snow prince…”

More details will likely follow in the coming months.

Janice Raymond, and Healing Old Wounds

This post is a personal reflection on Janice Raymond’s visit to Vancouver during a memorial for the victims of the massacre of women at L’École Polytechnique, which took place in Montreal 24 years ago.  For an overview of the controversy, why Janice Raymond’s presence (as well as some other aspects of that day’s program) drew anger from trans and sex work communities, and the different facets to that situation, please refer to my article at Rabble.  What follows is my personal reflection, recorded separately.

This blog post was originally going to be something very different, a personal recollection of how Janice Raymond’s writings had personally impacted me, how to heal from that, and the larger question of how to heal the old wounds that exist between trans and womens’ movements (a question that has been heavy on my mind over the past while).  After the publication of my article about her appearance at a memorial in Vancouver, the response to that article showed me that the former is something I don’t have the luxury of time to dwell on just yet, and the latter question is clearly more urgent.

A few of the responses accused me of having an agenda when I wrote the piece, Memorial draws controversy over invitation of speaker Janice Raymond, probably because I (as acknowledged in my bio at the end) have a trans history, myself.  In all honesty, my aim in writing it was to dig into a rather complex situation, be as objective as possible, and present several different points of view in a way that was true to the speakers and independent of myself.  Along the way, it meant examining a number of things, including the histories of Janice Raymond and the event sponsor that invited her, Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR); the use of the tragic memorial to promote a sex work abolition agenda that some felt was unrelated to the tragedy being commemorated; the trans and sex work communities’ response, and the complexities of responding while also not intruding on the larger context of a memorial.  If there was any take-away that I wanted readers to have, it would be to ask questions that might lead to the aforementioned healing.  A good journalist leaves the end response up to the reader, though, and the response I heard was unexpected.

What I didn’t expect was the visceral reaction that readers would have both to quotations of Raymond’s writing, and to the event sponsor’s policy on trans women.  To me, those things had been long-known issues.  Raymond’s book was first published in 1979, and the way it and her paper “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery“ were used to cut health care funding and close gender clinics are a matter of public record (although while looking for a link, I discovered that those events of the 1980s are better remembered by trans bloggers than by anyone else.  There are few, if any, people who are considered more controversial to the trans community than Janice Raymond.

Regarding the exemption of trans women from VRR’s primary services, I’d heard about this sporadically for years, and Vancouverites were still periodically tweeting upset about it before it was announced that VRR would be inviting Raymond to speak there.  So to me, this also seemed a long-known and ongoing concern: that while VRR will ensure that anyone facing an urgent emergency will be helped by referring them elsewhere, VRR will not provide the core of their services (shelter, counseling) to trans women. This exclusion can be traced all the way back to the 12-year Nixon v RR legal dispute, in which the Vancouver Rape Relief collective won the right to choose who could be a member and participant in the collective, even if that selection was made out of the belief that trans women aren’t women.

What I gleaned from interviewing VRR’s Hilla Kerner was the encouraging information that the views of the collective vary quite a bit on trans issues.  When I asked her about the exclusion, she sounded possibly regretful, perhaps uncomfortably embarrassed, and trying to rationalize the exclusion in a way that sounds reasonable if you don’t think about it too much:

“I’ll say it the other way.  There will not be a situation that someone is not safe in calling us, in which we would not help them to get safe.  It has nothing to do with who we are or what we do. It’s a basic human compassion.  To all people.  On the other hand, our core service is based on peer counseling and consciousness-raising and we’re only going to work with people, in this case, with women-born-women, who share the same experience.  And I think that transgender people who this model is appealing to them and want to have what we have, I think that the rationale from that will be that if you want to operate a consciousness raising / peer counseling -based service, probably a service that is designed by a transgender and operated by transgender and support and offer the peer counseling to other transgender who have a similar journey in life… because it’s a concept of consciousness-raising in a peer counseling context.”

But to Rabble readers, apparently, the exclusion of trans women from VRR services was a mostly new and shocking piece of information.

And that’s the first problem with wanting to heal a division of this sort, when that old division is still being allowed to persist in the form of policy.  Healing starts with talking about an issue, but if that issue is entrenched in current policy, doing so sometimes threatens to reopen old wounds.  Yet talk we must… and ask questions.

Part of what led me to believe that the exclusionary policy would not be shocking was that VRR’s website still documents some of its members’, supporters’ and like-minded activists’ past views toward trans people, such as Sheila Jeffreys’ assertions that “from a feminist perspective… transsexualism should be seen as a violation of human rights,” and compared the availability of genital reassignment surgery to lobotomy, which trans people should be saved from, for their own sake: “The mutilation of healthy bodies and the subjection of such bodies to dangerous and life-threatening continuing treatment violates such people’s rights to live with dignity in the body into which they were born.”  There is one essay on the website which talks about building bridges (while retaining the systemic exclusion, of course), but relies on one trans woman’s assertion that: “Well, let’s be clear on one thing from the start. As to M to F transsexuals, we can never be real women,” and “demanding equal treatment is not acceptable or productive…”

Most of those documents date from around 2000 to 2002, after the B.C. Supreme Court’s ruling in Nixon v. RR, but before the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case (thus making the last ruling stand).  With websites, things often get posted and forgotten, only to need questioning years later.

Times have changed, and so has our collective understanding of trans people and trans issues.  It’s time to question these old attitudes, but that requires unearthing them again.  That’s not an easy thing to do, apparently, without having the reaction turn to anger, instead of resolution and healing… which take much more mutual effort.  But I believe that the focus needs to be kept on the latter as much as possible.

Perhaps before we can heal the rifts between collective movements, we need to try to heal the way we talk about them.  And each other.  As one interested party, I’m still trying to find what that way is.

The question comes at a time when something being called “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF), a fringe offshoot of feminism largely inspired by Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, is attempting to make a comeback.  While adherents have reopened some of those old wounds elsewhere, the philosophy doesn’t really resonate with mainstream feminism, which understands that division and demonization have rarely been good ways to build movements; that oppression has always been a poor way to fight oppression.

More important to remember, of course, is that there are many areas where the forms of oppression we face overlap.  Misogyny is a significant portion of what makes up transphobia, for example, because it is the perceptively non-masculine aspect of trans people that the cis (non-trans) public most reacts to in hatred.  Although much of the TERF critique of trans politics centers upon the possibility that trans people may reinforce an oppressive gender binary, the truth is that trans people are demonized in the rest of society exactly because they call that binary into question, are uncertainly in-or-out of that binary, blur its edges and raise challenging questions about sex, gender and human existence.  These kinds of overlap are completely missed when a policy of exclusion assumes that poverty, inequity, vulnerability and rape are somehow irrevocably different experiences simply because one had been born or socialized as male.

But we need to strive for that healing, especially if social movements want to transcend their own self-imposed boundaries and bring about true lasting change.  Healing and building critical mass go hand in hand.  As long as activism requires thinking in terms of colonies (even if umbrella-like), rather than in terms of alliances and intersections — ownership, rather than solidarity — it will be forever fractured and expending its valuable energy on policing its boundaries and propagating oppression — not on dismantling it.

And when I say all of this, I’ve not forgotten the other aspect of VRR’s controversy, surrounding sex work.  If anything, the discussion about feminism, transfeminism and the old wounds from that conflict serves as a cautionary tale, to question one’s activism, lest it do damage to sex workers, and this entire situation be revisited again in another form, in another ten years.

Healing should be preferable by far, over anger and exclusion.

For a case in point, this entire discussion began within the context of a memorial for the victims of the massacre at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal 24 years ago.  It has to be one of the most vivid examples of sheer hatred on historic record, and was undertaken by a man who does not deserve to be named, and who specifically targeted women, claiming he was fighting feminism.  That action is a deep scar in the psyche of Canadian women (and women worldwide).

The most disturbing thing that could come out of the controversy of the past weekend is if the tragedy of the École Polytechnique massacre becomes forgotten, turned into an opportunity for three communities that should be natural allies — the womens’ movement, the sex workers’ rights movement, and the trans rights movement — to instead do violence to each other.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

Guest Post: El Feministo’s Open Letter re: Janice Raymond at Vancouver’s Ecole Polytechnique Massacre Memorial

On November 30th, a “Montreal Massacre Memorial 2013” event is being held in Vancouver to remember the victims of the massacre at l’Ecole Polytechnique, and to seek ways to end violence against women.  It’d be the kind of thing I’d be happy to promote, if it weren’t poisoned with this: sponsor Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) has invited Janice Raymond to provide a lecture entitled “Prostitution: Not a Job, not a Choice” — hijacking the very real and urgent problem of violence against women, to try to win support for the abolition of sex work.  Raymond also has a long history of transphobia which is well-detailed below (along with VRR’s own transphobic history), and resulted in a long and bitter rift between trans and feminist movements. — M

El Feministo posted the following letter at Babble, the message board at Rabble.ca:

—————————————–

18 November 2013

To Vancouver Public Library management and board, Vancouver Rape Relief management, collective, and board, and to members, donors, and volunteers with both organizations:

I am writing regarding Vancouver Rape Relief’s (VRR’s) intent to host Janice Raymond at their “Montreal Massacre Memorial 2013” event hosted by Vancouver Public Library (VPL) on Nov. 30, 2013. Ms. Raymond is to deliver a talk titled “Prostitution: Not a Job, not a Choice”. Further to Raymond’s controversial stance on prostitution, you are likely aware of Raymond’s notorious stance toward transgendered people, too. I am requesting that space be made available to both transgender communities and sex work communities to respond to Ms. Raymond when she speaks at VPL.

Ms. Raymond is infamous for suggesting that “medicalized transsexualism represents only one more aspect of patriarchal hegemony” and arguing that transgendered people should be morally mandated “out of existence”. She also wrote Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery, for the US Government, which led to the elimination of US federal and state aid for indigent and imprisoned transsexual persons – legislation which some speculate facilitated the deaths of already-marginalized trans persons. Raymond’s opinions on prostitution are similarly controversial, and widely criticized: her testimony in Bedford v. Canada was judged not to be credible. Her promotion of the belief that “legalization or decriminalization of prostitution … promotes trafficking” has been widely debunked and policies based on this mistaken assumption (like the USA’s PEPFAR legislation, until it was struck down by the US Supreme Courthave been shown to have harmful effects.

Meanwhile, VRR’s negativity toward transgender people is well-documented in coverage of VRR’s dispute with Kim Nixon in the 1990s. However, you may not know that VRR continues to perpetuate this conflict, with VRR insinuating “real woman” discourse into UBC’s recent Take Back the Night event. VRR collective member (and de facto leader) Lee Lakeman’s recent defamation of Ms. Nixon in the form of public accusation of felony theft continues VRR’s aggression toward transgender people – a politics of exclusion reified into a praxis of hate (to this day, VRR argues that transgender is not an identity, but rather, say VRR, “it is really an insidious form of paralyzing liberalism which translates into ultraconservatism in action”). Moreover, VRR’s ideological bond with Raymond’s politics is reflected in VRR’s role as the home of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC)authors of a 2013 statement which prioritizes the elimination of sex work over all other women’s issues.

Whereas VPL intends to host an event sponsored by VRR, featuring Raymond, I refer you to VPL’s policy, which “is responsible for working with its communities to create services that diverse communities identify as respectful, inclusive, and accessible” with specific regard to “sexual orientation, gender identity,” etc. In light of this policy, I am asking both VPL and VRR to ensure that Janice Raymond’s presence at VPL includes the voices of the communities that she and VRR excludes. I am appealing to the Library’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement (referenced above) as well as to theLibrary’s meeting room policy, which in turn refers to the BC Human Rights Code. I believe the latter’s clause on “discriminatory publication” applies to any statements made during this event.

To be clear, this is not an attempt to censor or censure VRR or Raymond. To the contrary, I invite VRR to step inclusively into the realm of civil society rather than continuing to privilege the purity of your particular voice at the expense of the people you exclude. Inviting a dialogue between Raymond and the people she speaks against so stridently would be a step toward dissipating the pain and harm that Raymond’s views have caused to so many people.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that this request is motivated by values promoting civic discourse in a vibrant public sphere. I respect VRR’s right and privilege to mount this event, but showcasing a speaker who many people believe to be guilty of hate speech is inconsistent with these values, both generally and as reflected in VPL’s policies.

Respectfully,

El Feministo

Leaving High River

On September 20th, 2013, we started moving into our new home.  It was further away from Calgary (where I work), making for a longer commute.  But the home was dry, and it was ours. We were exceedingly lucky.

Three months from the day that my partner and I were first evacuated, we were leaving High River.

Most of the news that people will hear will focus on the numbers, now.  Insured damage has topped $1.7 Billion, making the flooding throughout southern Alberta the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.  Even that ignores the fact that the most widespread of the damage (overland flooding) is not covered by insurance plans in Canada… something that has resulted in many fights with insurers over just how much damage is the result of sewer backup or other insured aspects.  Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry is already telling Albertans to brace for a 30% hike in rates.  Meanwhile, many High Riverites — and throughout Southern Alberta (the nearby Siksika Nation reserve was also particularly hard-hit) — struggle to find options.

But there we are, detoured by the numbers again.  It’s the only way we have to measure the scale of what occurred.  Otherwise, we’re helpless to the randomness and madness of it all.  While non-residents seem to have the impression that the entire town was built on a floodplain, the expected flood zone actually accounts for very little of the community… something that is factoring significantly in the conflicts between the Province and inland residents who are finding themselves ineligible for the long-promised relief funding.  While it’s true that the entire town was flooded and evacuated, the reason it did may be more mishap than anything, and probably will be the stuff of lawsuits for the next decade.

As we were moving into our home in another town, a number of High Riverites were also just returning to theirs, in the hardest-hit part of the town.  Others were still living in the trailers set up in various places, while their homes could be restored to habitability. Much of High River’s downtown core is patched up but left dark, with no certainty of whether some of those businesses will ever return.

In nearby Calgary, the volunteer thanking and patting on the back has grown so old that residents are starting to sound almost tediously annoyed when reminded that people remain displaced since the June calamity.  “Isn’t that all over, yet?”

“Isn’t it over, yet?”

It seemed to take forever.

When the flooding first hit, High Riverites were being told to check the town website, to listen to the local radio station, or to follow the Facebook and Twitter feeds. But the town website was offline, and the local radio stations were reduced to dead air. The feeds weren’t being updated. A Calgary station reported that a woman had been washed away from a trailer in Black Diamond. And boats from an RV sales centre were being sighted miles downstream. And the Town of Bragg Creek was underwater. My partner rushed home to gather our shih-tzu and an overnight bag, just in case.  One minute, everything was dry; the next, she was driving out of our community with water up to the bottom of her car door.

There was a severe lack of information in the beginning, and then when updates finally came, they arrived with some tempers and occasional snark.  It was five days before we were able to see aerial photos of the flooding mess, which had inexplicably reached every building in town, including areas that we had previously been certain were too far from the river or too elevated to be in any danger.  But all prior expectations were rendered moot. As someone who had previously researched the worst flooding of the Town’s pre-2005 known history — in the 1910s, which resulted in water a foot deep at the Wales Theatre — it seemed surreal to look at photos now of our local 7-11 submerged almost up to its awning.

The debates are fierce, now, about whether the canal system that had been designed to withstand a 1-in-100 flood like the Town experienced in 2005 actually helped spread the water everywhere, or whether a decision to divert some of the flood waters into what ultimately became the hardest-hit neighbourhood (despite its distance from the river) was a decision (as one engineer called it) to sacrifice that community.  But back then, we didn’t even know enough to base a guess on.

We understood that there was mess and risk, yet the Town seemed to want to go to the overprotective extreme, to have roads completely cleared and utilities, water, sewage disposal, sewage treatment, power, phones, protective services, fencing for “high-risk areas,” and medical centre all fully-functional, and a “welcome centre” in operation, before we were going to be allowed back. Even the most pragmatic of us had to fight the impulse to kick ourselves for not ignoring the evacuation order.  The risk and chaos of living in a houseboat on Lake High River almost seemed like a preferable course of action.

Equally perplexing was the way that during the evacuation, skilled and experienced contractors were being turned away, only to later see the entire recovery and cleanup effort turned over exclusively to a predominantly energy-focused company, before the public really knew that there was a bidding process.  But that came later.

The Town enlisted the Canadian Armed Forces to protect the flood-damaged township from its citizens.  Yet most of the military presence was gone before we were even allowed to see our homes or know the state secret of what was left.  It was a week and a half before residents of select areas were being allowed back in to view their homes — wealthy areas first, it seemed — and secure their things.  My fiancee and I were allowed in at the two-week mark, and arrived to find our window smashed in, so that it could have been easily accessed for nearly a week by the volunteers already allowed into ground zero.

In some media outlets, you’d almost think that the most important story in all of the mess was the RCMP entering of homes and seizing unsecured firearms, rather than the enormous expanse of lake which nearly a month later still sat where the eastern third of a town had been.  Even that little aspect of the flooding gets engineered: you don’t hear from the animal rescue efforts or from residents upset about their belongings left unattended or from homeowners whose firearms weren’t seized. The entire southern Alberta flood has been distilled into a rallying cry for insecure gun nuts.

Of course, you can’t talk about global warming.  That would be politically exploitative and crazy.

There’s a perception that Albertans are among the most stubborn of the climate change deniers. Yet, there weren’t very many skeptics milling about outside the Nanton evacuation centre… although the acknowledgement is sometimes made by subsuming things into a biblical paradigm of end-times scriptures about “earthquakes in diverse places.”  Even so, if there was one thing that people in southern Alberta shared, it was a realization that something had changed.  High River and many other towns had already seen a “1-in-100″ flood, in recent memory (2005).  This was different.

And as we waited to return home, it was not lost on people that a record heat wave stretched across the western half of North America, with heat-enhanced fires claiming the lives of 19 highly-skilled firefighters.  Flash sleet mixed with slush (called “hail” on the news, but we could see for ourselves what it was) struck Alberta in July, a monsoon hit Uttarakhand, India, record flash flooding struck Toronto, and now Colorado has experienced something eerily reminiscent of June 20th and 21st.  Bad weather happens.  But greater extremes, greater unpredictability, greater frequency, and greater consequences… that’s unmistakably different.  Especially when we know the magnitude of what we experienced:

When a low pressure system from the Pacific reached Alberta, that parked high pressure cell kept the low pressure backed up against the foothills, dropping rain across much of central and southern Alberta for much longer than expected. Many locations across southern Alberta received as much rain in 18 hours as they would normally receive in two months. Since some snow still remained in the mountains, there was also a rain-on-snow event that added even more water into the creeks and rivers.

From my own perspective, I don’t know how we can know what we do about CFCs, lead, mercury, sarin gas, carcinogens, forms of toxicity, the steps needed to prevent or control chemical leaching, and not think that what we do in industry can have lasting effects on our ecosystems.  Or why we would not feel an obligation to do what we can to be responsible stewards of the world we love.

The Town of High River is a weird little idyll in the Alberta Southwest.  It’s remote enough to feel like a retreat, but urban enough to feel luxurious.  Situated where the prairies begin to fade into foothills, with the Rocky Mountains waiting inspiringly in the near distance, it’s almost an epicentre of rustic western Canadiana.  It’s only a little over an hour into Kananaskis, to the mountains, to the rugged Porcupine Hills, to urban Calgary, to Aboriginal historic sites like Blackfoot Crossing or Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, to picturesque Banff and Canmore, not quite two hours to the Drumheller badlands, to some of Alberta’s rare patches of near-desert, just a little further into Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, to Waterton Lakes or to the Writing-On-Stone heritage site.  It took something like eight day-trips just to see the most notable filming locations for Brokeback Mountain.  It’s easy to see why series like Heartland would be filmed here, and why the first Mantracker would be a High Riverite.

It seems strange to leave, and also concerning about what the town is likely to become.  Largely untouched by box-stores and big brand retailers (other than fast-food locations), that’s sure to change, as many independent businesses are likely to not rebuild, while larger retailers will probably take interested in rebuilding incentives, and council are not likely to be as choosy.  It’s disaster capitalism on a micro- scale.  The spark of the town is gone.  It seems better to leave entirely than to sit in the midst of the dank and dark that has stained everything.  We feel guilty, overly-privileged, and more than a little resentful of the day everything changed.

On the morning of June 20th, we expected that people would start sandbagging in the morning, and we’d head over to wherever we might be needed, in the evening — probably the floodplain areas.  By then, people would be getting tired, and we could give them some rest, bring coffee, or provide whatever support was needed. We weren’t worried: we’d seen what we’d been told would be the worst, in 2005.  Even so, the morning seemed a little surreal as I left for work in Calgary, and had to struggle to get onto the main road, for all the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

We never thought we’d be leaving High River forever.

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