Lu’s Womyn-Born-Womyn-Only Policy: The Ongoing Discussions

On July 6th, I noted the story of Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women, operated by the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC) , and noted how the Vancouver pharmacy’s policy to serve only “women who were born as women and live as women” excluded anyone transsexual or of transsexual history.  At that point, I’d recommended opening dialogue as a first step solution.  After some initial protests and media attention, that dialogue has begun, involving several advocates.  The outcome is still uncertain, but two things that are becoming apparent are that 1) both sides want to talk, and 2) no one wants to see a valuable resource for women close — they only wish to see only the reassessment of a bad policy.

Lu’s is currently screening people via a locked door, something that began after a public protest on the 11th.  A visual inspection and a short discussion must be passed before a person is allowed admittance to the pharmacy.  There is no signage about the womyn-born-womyn only policy — it is not needed in these circumstances.

Tuesday July 7th

On the day Lu’s opened, Shannon Blatt entered and expressed support for the concept of Lu’s and that she wished to move her prescriptions to the pharmacy.  A discussion of the women-born-women policy followed.

Full text was recorded at the Facebook Group site:

I continued that the ‘women born women” policy was something that I had hoped to ask about on coming to the pharmacy, because I had read online that the pharmacy would only serve “women born women.” She confirmed that it is their policy, and went on to state that she felt they had been very open and up-front about the policy. I politely challenged that, noting that it was not at all clear on the web site for Lu’s or for VWHC. She replied that one had to review VWHC’s “political agreements” on the web site.

At about that point, I asked if there might be a willingness to engage in dialogue with trans people about the “women born women” policy. She indicated that there would be an openness to that, but reiterated that they had considered the matter carefully before enacting the policy. I indicated that I was pleased that they were willing to engage in dialogue, because I did not want to see women and communities becoming polarized as they had during the Nixon litigation.

She invited me inside, and we sat at a couple of chairs in the front waiting area (which was empty, save for one staff member behind the counter.) She began to tell me about how VWHC had considered the issue of whether to only serve “women born women”, and had concluded that their focus and emphasis was very much centred on women’s physiology, the physiology of “women born women”, including in particular issues like “bleeding” (which I understood to mean menstruation) and reproductive health. She told me that they had concluded that they simply did not have the expertise or knowledge to serve trans women.

I was somewhat incredulous, but politely asked whether she was saying that a pharmacist who dispenses medications prescribed by physicians, would be incapable of dispensing medications to trans women. She replied that “it’s not just that.”

We continued our conversation in a mutually courteous manner. She told me that the VWHC had engaged in extensive consultations when developing its policy and approach. I asked her if trans women had been included in those consultations. She replied in the affirmative and left me with the impression that more than one trans person may have been consulted, but she only specifically mentioned there being one person, a trans woman that spoke to them as part of the consultation process in the course of their policy formation. She did not identify the trans woman and I did not ask her to do so.

She went on a bit more about how they had really carefully considered the policy and they wanted to work side by side with trans women, but that they just didn’t have the expertise. She indicated that “The Centre” (which I understand to have been recently re-named “Q-munity”) does fine work for trans people. I indicated to her that I was not “in transition” and didn’t need assistance with transition per se, but only with the dispensing of prescriptions. She replied that she understood, and that the trans woman they had consulted with was of similar status.

I asked her if Van City and UBC were aware of the “women born women” exclusive policy of the pharmacy. She replied in the affirmative both verbally and by nodding emphatically.

I indicated that I hoped to avoid confrontation and polarization. She very clearly indicated a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation on these issues. I was left feeling that the invitation to dialogue had been accepted, but I was also very much of the impression that her mind was not terribly open to the possibility of changing the policy.

The latter paragraph occurred as they parted ways.  Shannon concludes:

I am very hurt by the experience of being denied services by Lu’s Pharmacy, and have felt very sad and emotionally wounded by the experience, despite knowing full well that I might face it when I decided to visit the pharmacy to verify the reports that it intended to refuse to serve trans women. I am surprised at how hurt I feel, at how very “second class” it has made me feel as a woman. I believe this bespeaks the very damaging nature of such policies for those who are on the receiving end of the exclusion. While I myself am not a resident of the downtown east side, the policy of Lu’s Pharmacy causes me to have a particular and very considerable concern for trans women in the DTES who are addicts, recovering addicts, sex workers and otherwise street involved, and who would benefit from the services provided by Lu’s as much as any other woman in the area it serves.

Saturday July 11th

Since this occurred, Vancouver activists organized a protest of the pharmacy.  A group called the Femininjas intended to observe an attempt to fill a prescription, but the pharmacy had heard about the plans, and changed their hours in order to close that day.  The Femininjas have since abandoned this and released an open letter inviting dialogue.  VWHC has voiced objection to the letter, expressing that all dialogue must happen behind closed doors.

So while the pharmacy remained closed, activists staged a protest outside.  Contrary to reportage, I’m hearing that the protesters were a mix of trans and cisgender people, and that we definitely have allies in Vancouver.  This is encouraging, since the rifts caused by Nixon v. RR had cut deeply in previous years.

Monday July 13th

VWHC Executive Director Caryn Duncan responded to the press:

“We are an organization that has for almost 40 years supported women around their battle with breast cancer or unwanted pregnancy or delivering a baby with a midwife, [and] celebrating or dealing with menopause,” Duncan said. “It’s about bleeding—or wanting to bleed or not bleed. It’s about being a woman, and the physiology of being a woman.”

Of course, hormone therapy for transfemales has some clear and definite parallels if not outright similarities to menopausal HRT.  Breast cancer and menopausal occurrences are also things we can be susceptible to.  Where we would need a pharmacy most, Lu’s would in fact be equipped to help.  The insistent difference remains centered around menstrual and reproductive physiology, with the opinion that the pharmacy is simply not able to help anyone outside those requirements.

While I was reporting this in the comments on the previous article, I received an email from a woman of trans history, critical of the opposition to the policy and claiming that we’re demonstrating “obvious male privilege” by “stamping your feet and demanding admittance.”  This is in in spite of the fact that her own operative history disqualifies her as a woman in the eyes of the policy.  It seems that it is not only cisgender women who defend such thinking.  It’s also curious how quickly a desire for rights and recognition — that can be recognized as such for anyone else — can quickly be construed as “male privilege” as soon as it comes from someone who is trans (and that seems to work for both MTF and FTM folks).

Tuesday July 14th

Jamie Lee Hamilton was refused service when she went to fill a prescription.  According to the Facebook Group where it was first reported, a staff member referred to Lu’s as a health clinic rather than a pharmacy.  The Georgia Straight reported the incident, noting that there was a suggestion from VWHC to start a trans-specific pharmacy (presumably in a different location?) and that Ms. Duncan commented: “I have felt that people are employing intimidation tactics, and it’s hurtful to me personally.”  Hamilton and Duncan agreed to meet again on Thursday the 16th to discuss the matter before proceeding further.  Discussion seemed to go well, and another meeting was arranged.

Wednesday July 22nd

Femininjas, Kim Nixon, Melady Preece, and representatives from Qmunity, WISH, Battered Women’s Support Services, RainCity Housing, PRISM, Women Against Violence Against Women and Dancing to Eagle met with VWHC.  Brooklyn Zelenka, who attended the meeting, related new information regarding how things are progressing.  More details could occur at the Femininjas website.

“I hope that this information sparks a productive and useful discussion. The bottom line is that no one wants to see Lu’s close. It is a very important, and much needed space. I hope that we can find a solution that ensures that this pharmacy stays open and flourishes.”

“Prompted as to how they will determine who is transgendered and who is cisgendered (non-trans), the VWHC said that they are being practical about the situation and that sadly it is very much based on appearance. They restated this a handful of times over the course of the ensuing conversation. They also did verify that the door is locked, and that people need to pass a visual inspection.”

Qmunity, Vancouver’s LGBT centre, has offered to train VWHC’s pharmacist with regards to transfemale pharmaceutical and medical issues.  There seemed (to meeting attendees) to be some receptivity, and the VWHC has promised to discuss this possibility internally.

Qmunity, incidentally, was asked about a LGBT-specific clinic operated by Vancouver Coastal Health, the Three Bridges Community Health Centre that was developed in the wake of the closing of the gender clinic in Vancouver.  They responded that the Three Bridges clinic does not turn people away if they do not identify as LGBT (which is borne out by their literature).

Battered Women’s Social Services also discussed their own pro-trans policy and how it has been working.  They reminded that women-only spaces are not completely safe, as violence can occur between women, and attributing menace specifically to transwomen is a straw argument.

Due to vacations, further discussion is slated to happen in the second or third week of September.


I also need to issue a clarification: in the original article, I’d interpreted the “woman born as a woman and living as a woman” clause in their “Political Agreements” page as meaning that transmen would also be refused service.  Vancouver Women’s Health Collective, which operates Lu’s has said that this would not be the case, and that they would help transmen, specific to areas of reproductive health, on a case-by-case basis.  According to the VWHC, while the policy was being drafted, one of their members began to transition to male, although later stopping.  This period of time had caused the VWHC to reassess the policy with regard to transmen.

It has also been brought forward that although the storefront reads “Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women,” “Lu’s…” is not a legal entity.  The VWHC, which operates the pharmacy, considers it a brand, a service that the VWHC offers.  To this end, there is no business licensing required as it’s operated by a charity, and on a legal standpoint, is viewed differently from a business denying goods and services to a group of people.

As It Stands

The long and short of it is that while things have remained civil thus far and people wish to continue discussion, there appears to have been little movement on VWHC’s part to question the policy, aside from a promise to discuss possible pharmacist training.  There has been some speculation that the womyn-born-womyn policy may even have been a condition in making Lu’s financially possible somewhere along the line, but that has to be taken as speculation at this time.

The code of ethics set by the College of Pharmacists of British Columbia states that “A pharmacist’s commitment to the patient’s care must be sensitive to, but not prejudiced by, factors such as the patient’s race, religion, ethnic origin, social or marital status, gender, sexual orientation, age, or health status.” So while the Nixon v. Rape Relief case may have enabled charitable organizations to discriminate against transsexuals, there is another authority concerned about the issue.  Complaints have not been made to the College however, partly due to the desire in the community to impress a change in policy (and not to obliterate the clinic), and partly due to the new screening policy which ensures that transwomen cannot access the pharmacist.

In the meantime, the feeling has been growing that the VWHC has been stalling and simply hoping for the controversy to dwindle, although the people involved in the discussions are remaining optimistic.  But supporters continue to voice their support for an inclusive policy while commending the rest of the VWHC’s vision, and have been contacting local trans-inclusive womens’ charities and support resources, asking them to consider doing the same.

Vancouver Women’s Health Collective
29 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC, V6B 1G4

Crossposted to The Bilerico Project

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