On Sunday, December 28th, 17-year-old trans* Ohio teenager committed suicide by stepping in front of a tractor-trailer on the interstate. She was killed instantly.
Her tragedy says something profound which has been almost completely missed in the discussion about LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) currently wafting across Canada.
Before Leelah Alcorn’s death, she posted a suicide note online. Some of the links to it are no longer working, but the text is archived at Slate. In it, she relates a heartbreaking story of a kid who learned what “transgender” meant at the age of 14, despite having always known in her heart that she needed to live as a young woman. [This I can strongly relate to, having not heard anything about trans* people until I was about the same age or slightly older. It was an age before Internet. I wept for days at the realization that there was actually a word for it — until then, I thought I was the only one, and that it was a character fault.] On telling her parents, they called it a phase, said it was impossible (that “God doesn’t make mistakes”), and taking her to Christian therapists, who told her that she “was selfish and wrong and… should look to God for help.” The situation grew worse:
“So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness…”
She felt like everything was closing in on her: her social isolation, the hopelessness of having to afford a mass of expenses (college, moving away from home and transition costs including surgery), what she perceived to be an insurmountable challenge of being too masculinized by hormones by the time she can start transition at 18 (a tragic misconception, as transition outlooks are still usually extremely good when transitioning that young), the fear of living a loveless life, and more.
Since her suicide, her parents have received a wave of anger from trans* people, and responded by claiming to have loved their child “unconditionally,” while still adamantly invalidating her and misgendering her:
“We don’t support that, religiously … But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”
The media coverage has turned into a circus, with various publications conflicting and editorializing over whether Leelah should be acknowledged as the person she understood herself to be or deliberately invalidated as per the family’s wishes. Meanwhile, the religious right response has been unsurprisingly vicious and negative, blaming trans* people for Leelah’s suicide, and that the real solution should have been more antagonism, reparative therapy, and invalidation until it somehow eventually overwhelmed her and somehow (inexplicably) made her feel better:
“The attitude that says we should be able to be what we want, no matter what, is dangerous. This Abby is complicit in her friend’s death. She encouraged wrong behavior. This wrong behavior created bad feelings or depression. This furthered Joshua’s depression and desire to make himself happy.
“Rather than saying gently and calmly that his problem was not that he was a girl trapped in a boy’s body, they should have said. “You’re a boy, in a boy’s body.” The confusion is that you are trying to be something that you are not meant to be, you’re not a girl…”
Others are calling for all trans* people to go “truck” themselves (i.e. commit suicide in the same fashion that Leelah did).
Since her suicide, vigils for Leelah have taken place across North America, including one in Winnipeg. Trans* activists are calling for a change in the discussion about the well-being of trans* youth.
With the extensive (and puzzling) debate over LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in several provinces across Canada, there has been a considerable amount of ink spilled over a parent’s rights to deny their children information about sexual orientation and gender identity, and to deny the acceptance, validation and support of gay, bi- or trans* kids in schools as a matter of religious freedom of conscience.
And yet no one is talking about LGBT teens’ rights to acceptance, enfranchisement, freedom from harassment, and to learn about who they are. Or the right of non-queer teens to learn what society now largely knows to be truth about their peers.
In Alberta, the debate has even gone as far as enfranchising parents’ rights in a way that supersedes the rights of children and teens, in law.
Canadian school boards have begun recognizing the need to enfranchise lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* kids. But will politicians and media do the same before Leelah Alcorn’s tragedy is repeated north of the 49th parallel?
There is a simple, time-honoured rule about attempting to “balance” human rights classes in legislation so that it works out a particular way every time, and it goes like this:
That is a court’s role. When two human rights classes are put into conflict in a way that creates hardships for both, a court becomes the arbiter, weighing the context of a given situation in order to determine which party has experienced the most undue hardship.
Legislating such a way that one party’s rights always supersedes the other creates a hierarchy of rights, and defeats the whole purpose of equal rights legislation.
That is what took place this week with Alberta’s Bill 10, which newly-crowned Premier Jim Prentice introduced to dump and replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202.
The latter bill sought to do three things:
- Give students the right to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) when and if they wanted to;
- Remove a section (s.11.1) of the Alberta Human Rights Act which called for parents to be notified and either evacuate their children or opt them into anything that taught tolerance of LGBT people (interesting trivia: Alberta is the only jurisdiction in the world that has a “parental rights” clause like this, and it took several years to implement because no one was sure how it could work); and
- Add a mention of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act to the Education Act.
Premier Prentice’s new Bill 10 does this:
- Encourages school boards to allow GSAs;
- Allow the students to sue the school boards if they don’t (presuming they can find enough legal help, information, support and funding to cover the legal expenses to do so, and ride out the years of delay tactics at boards’ disposal);
- The bill also removes s.11.1 from the Alberta Human Rights Act, but makes changes to legislation which more or less negates the change, other than affecting the way complaints are addressed.
If at any point the Premier thought he had sliced through a Gordian Knot worthy of Alexander, he soon realized otherwise. As the bill came up for Third Reading, several amendments were proposed by opposition MLAs, and Prentice is now said to also be considering some of his own.
There are two central conflicts within this debate, one that is discussed frequently during many debates on social issues, and another which has been barely remarked upon at all.
“LGBT Rights vs. Religious Freedom”
The first is the false equivalence between LGBT human rights and religious freedom. The reason I call it a false equivalence is because what we’re really talking about is the complaint that the (“special,” as it’s sometimes called) right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people to have equal access to employment, housing, services and other forms of enfranchisement is trumping the (“perfectly ordinary everyday?”) right to deny LGBT people any or all of those things. People retain the freedom to believe what they will, practice their faith, and speak their beliefs — all up to the point where doing so becomes harassing and disenfranchising to others. In most of the situations that are framed as pitting LGBT rights against religious freedom, this sort of conflict can only be considered equally-matched if you believe that coexistence is a violation religious conscience.
But the “gay rights versus religious freedom” argument has been losing steam, partly because the public at large is starting to recognize it as a ruse, and partly because the cause of religious freedom opens the possibility that the proponents’ religion will be placed on an equal footing with other religions, such as Islam, Satanism, or even Atheism. Hardline social conservatives like the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer have spoken out about this within religious circles, and more are starting to follow.
Consider this candid rant by Scott Lively, the pastor who is widely credited with having inspired Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda”:
“For about a year now I’ve been arguing against the use of “religious liberty” as a theme of Christian public advocacy. We retreated to that theme after SCOTUS Justice Hugo Black’s abandonment of the Bible’s authority in favor of a new “religious pluralism” standard in the 1940s-60s, starting with Everson v Board of Education (1947). That was the case that adopted Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” metaphor as a justification for declaring all religions to be equal with Christianity in America, and equally subservient to Secular Humanist authority…
“But God always provides a way of escape. (We’re only trapped if we accept the limitation of staying on their chessboard.) That narrow and difficult but God-honoring way is to stop arguing for “religious liberty” and resume our proclamation of the superiority of Christ and His Word over all opposing faiths (along with tolerance for people of other faiths — that‘s how it worked before Black). It’s goal must be nothing less than an official reaffirmation of the Bible as our legal and cultural foundation, which would require overturning Everson and its juridical progeny…”
It was never really about religious freedom.
The other conflict that has been almost completely missed is the one between youth and parents. The argument made for parental rights clauses is that parents should have (using the language of Bill 10) the right “to make informed decisions respecting the education of their children.”
No one was ever stopping parents from teaching their children what they believe and encouraging their kids to follow their lead. What parental rights are actually about is the right to deny their children any information to the contrary.
And that only sounds like a good idea until you remember that the kids should have rights too. But by enshrining parental rights in legislation, the Province of Alberta is essentially prioritizing the right of parents to deny their kids knowledge (and emotional support, if their kid happens to be gay or trans*) over the right of children and youth to know. In some cases, it means that the attitudes of the narrowest-minded parents determine what everyone’s kids are allowed to know.
And when you say it for what it is, it doesn’t really sound like that brilliant a compromise.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is currently reviewing its Human Rights Code policy on conscience-based exemptions for medical professionals, and their effect on access to medical services.
This review was sparked by a number of news reports of doctors in Ontario and Alberta refusing to prescribe birth control because of their religious beliefs. In some of those cases, patients were refused in clinics where there was only one doctor on duty.
Concurrently, south of the border, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of a corporation’s right to deny medical insurance to its employees when doing so would violate the owners’ religious beliefs — a case that was specifically about access to contraception. The Hobby Lobby case has been followed by several new attempts to widen the exemption, and calls to extend it to other sectors and in ways that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.
These events reflect a major shift in the way that conscience rights are being seen and applied in North America. It is my hope that the experiences of trans* people in Alberta with conscience-based medical exemptions might provide some insights for those considering a conscience policy review in Ontario.
Alberta has had a policy for some time which allows a doctor to refuse to prescribe treatments that violate their religious beliefs in non-emergency situations. However, they are required to state that the refusal is because of their religious beliefs, and to provide a timely referral for patients to someone who will provide care, so that patients still receive service and experience a minimum of undue hardship (although to be fair, having to jump through referral hoops can be considered an undue hardship of itself, especially when one factors in the difficulties in scheduling time off from work and other real life concerns). Ontario’s policy is similar, though not identical.
Alberta’s policy was created to protect medical professionals from having to participate in any situation that might lead to an abortion. But in the past year, there has been an upsurge of discussion about the need for a religious or conscience-based exemption in every sector and every practice. Access to birth control is one of the pivotal issues in play in that discussion, although it is not the only one.
As an advocate for transsexual and transgender people, I’ve needed to assist a great number of people over the years who’ve been denied medical services because they’re trans* under Alberta’s conscience exemption policy. Sometimes people have even been denied services for things like urinary tract infections, routine checkups and cases of the flu. To be fair, the conscience exemption is not the only factor: denials are sometimes made by doctors who say they’ve never been trained in trans* health — although this complaint is made not only in regard to trans-specific health concerns, nor does there appear to be a willingness to learn from many of those doing the refusing.
Most often, trans* people who are refused care are also not provided a referral to anyone else. This exploits the public’s unfamiliarity with this part of the law, and that they’re entitled to a referral. It is certainly not every medical professional who refuses to assist, but it occurs frequently enough that the trans* community has had to try to keep a list of “trans-friendly” doctors — a list that is constantly plagued by doctors no longer being able to accept new patients, or making changes in their practice or habits. I’m always happy to add doctors to the list, with the only requirement be that they adhere to the WPATH Standards of Care (which is also the policy of Alberta Health Services). Two years ago, someone obtained a copy of our records and stormed into the offices of several listed clinics in Calgary, raising a ruckus about doctors’ willingness to treat trans* patients, and this resulted in several requests to be removed from our list.
Although commentators sometimes note theoretical possibilities like a Jehovah’s Witness practitioner denying blood transfusions, I can say from experience that conscience policies already can and do result in people being denied access to the care they need… and are not always given “timely” alternatives.
I am sensitive to a person’s right to opt out of something because their conscience, and not just a religious-based conscience. However, in practical experience, exemptions tend to be abused, and marginalized people pay the heaviest price. If there is to be a conscience-based exception to medical care, a province also needs to have a much better way of coordinating timely and accessible care alternatives, and better enforce the responsibility to provide those alternatives. In Alberta, this is difficult, since there is no centralized means of communicating with medical professionals and provide some forms of training after they’re already in the field, short of making laws — so strengthening things at a policy level proves difficult.
With the recent shift of thinking among the religious right toward making provinces “abortion-free” and denying access to previously uncontroversial things like birth control, this issue will worsen in coming years. If there is to be a conscience-based exemption to medical care, provinces need to seek a solution to the policy quandaries this creates now. For example, if a walk-in clinic’s only physician on duty will not prescribe contraception, then it’s worth investigating what responsibility the clinic should have in providing a doctor who will, and in a manner that suits the patient’s needs, rather than the doctor’s.
Or what responsibility the province is taking upon itself by sanctioning health care exemptions.
(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)
The long, twisty and sordid legal saga of Aubrey Levin has finally come to an end. Originally found guilty on three counts of sexual assault in January 2013, Levin’s five year prison sentence was upheld by the Alberta Court of Appeal, Wednesday.
The case has garnered international attention, due to the Calgary psychiatrist’s past as a military psychiatrist in apartheid-era South Africa. It is often alleged that during this time, he was affiliated with or led a project aimed at “curing” soldiers of being gay, by subjecting them to electroshock therapy or worse — allegations he continues to deny.
The 2012/3 Trial
It is important to separate what was said to have occurred in South Africa from what he was charged with in Calgary, in the interest of clarity.
Levin was charged with 10 counts of sexual assault (one was later stayed), after an initial accusation in March, 2010 inspired as many as 22 former patients to come forward with allegations of abuse, in incidents dating back as far as 1999. Levin was convicted on three of those counts and acquitted of two, with the jury deadlocked on another four (two of those four were retried, but that too resulted in a mistrial). In the process, Levin’s wife Erica was charged with attempting to bribe a juror (and that case is ongoing).
The 2010 charges stem from incidents in which Aubrey Levin was said to have fondled patients’ genitals. The first patient to have come forward was so concerned about being believed that he used a spy camera to record multiple sessions.
In his defense, Levin said that he was not fondling patients, but using a urological technique called bulbocavernosus reflex (BVR) procedure, which is used to address erectile issues. In one of the videos, though, Levin is seen fondling the patient’s genitals for more than ten minutes, causing Calgary-area urologist Ethan Grober to dispute this claim, saying “What I saw was a prolonged … fondling of the penis. This was not a simple elicitation of a reflex.” And even if the technique could be characterized as a BVR test, there was no logical reason that Levin, a psychiatrist, should have been conducting it.
Levin’s trial was a circus of delays and confusion. The length of time taken to bring him to trial was unusual in the first place — 2 1/2 years, while police followed up with several former patients to determine how many charges could be laid. From the beginning, Levin’s attorneys sought extended delays because of health issues. The first was a request for 3-month respite so Levin could get his fragile health in order. Calgary Sun reporter Kevin Martin elaborated:
Two doctors testified Levin was in such poor health that he needed to get in shape before he could sustain the mental and physical strain of what was then to be a six-week hearing.
They said that perhaps in three months, should Levin be given the chance to rehabilitate his degenerating body, he’d be able to survive such an ordeal.
Had they seen Levin leaving court after his conviction — to a gauntlet of news cameramen — they might have thought his recovery miraculous.
Using his wheeled walker as more of a weapon than a crutch, the good doctor raced at the photographers with the agility of a much younger man, forcing those with cameras to evade being struck.
As that request failed, there were questions about Levin’s mental health, and claims of vascular dementia (Martin noted: “But once he was declared fit, Levin became a new man, taking notes and instructing his counsel”). Then, a drop in heart rate precipitated a medical emergency for which he was briefly hospitalized. Then, he fired his lawyers and began to represent himself. Then, he seemed unable to represent himself (certainly unable to cross-examine), and a new legal team needed to be found. The judge had to consult with the jury whether they could remain through the extensions, and there were fears the proceedings would collapse if they couldn’t. All in all, the trial that was expected to last six weeks had been deferred from August 19th, 2011 to October 10th of the following year, and wrapped up three and a half months later.
In addition to attempting to undermine the credibility of his former patients, a key part of Levin’s defense was to claim that the things that happened between them were consensual (we’ll come back to this point), and then were later mischaracterized or maliciously distorted by his accusers. It’s an argument that he and his legal teams argued successfully enough to achieve an acquittal on two charges and a mistrial on four others. In this way, his case became difficult to prosecute even beyond the circus-style atmosphere of the trial.
Levin’s defense tried to cut down the complainants’ testimonies by focusing on their records or troubles, by accusing them of having ulterior motives (including one claim that they were motivated by money), or even alleging that the complainant who recorded the abuse had made passes at Levin, and then edited those parts out:
“I’m going to suggest to you … that portion of the video shows you taking out your penis and waving it at the doctor,” Archer said.
During the trial, all effort was made to keep Levin’s past from playing a part, but occasionally revelations slipped out. On November 15, 2012 the Calgary Herald reported (page now offline):
R.B. said Levin would take down books from his shelves and show him “pictures of penises and vaginas. He would show me different parts that were sensitive for sexual acts.”
“Other times, he would tell me about his past, when he was in the army, forcing men to rape women,” he said.
Immediately, Wister cut off the witness and asked Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Donna Shelley to dismiss the jury. Following discussions, Shelley recalled the jury and told them that there will be inadmissible evidence heard in the court room and it should be disregarded.
“Not everything you hear will be admissible,” said the judge. “To the extent (R.B.) has said anything not relevant to what happened between 2001 and 2010, it is not relevant to these proceedings. It is not evidence. Disregard everything not related to these charges.”
Authorities feared that a complete mistrial was inevitable if the jury heard too much of the shocking nature of allegations made about his years in South Africa.
The Aversion Project
What has drawn international attention to this case is that Aubrey Levin was said to have led the South African military project in the 1970s and 1980s designed to “cure” military recruits of being gay — a program that allegedly included things like shock therapy (for which Levin was nicknamed “Dr. Shock”), chemical castration, and even forced genital reassignment surgery. While there are no mentions of Levin or the Aversion Project by name in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final reports, it’s generally accepted that something of an indeterminate nature took place at Ward 22, Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital, Pretoria.
The National Post had originally raised questions about these allegations, but quickly retracted them after Levin threatened to sue. Other media took notice and avoided mentioning Levin’s rumoured South African activities over the years that followed, although this did not deter international publications like The Guardian in the U.K. and South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.
When he came to Canada, Aubrey Levin did not apply for amnesty — nor was he granted it — so he could have been subpoenaed to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission… but TRC never chose to make the attempt. While the allegations were raised on record, there was also considerable frustration among the public that the TRC did not pursue the line of inquiry. For example, in the Health and Human Rights Project (HHRP)’s verbal submission on day 2 of the Health Sector Hearings on June 18, 1997, the group expressed some frustration that the Aversion Project was not being focused on:
“After those comments I just want to digress a little bit and particularly for the benefit of the lawyers who’ve trooped into this hearing, I think we, as the [HHRP] Project, want to register our concern for this whole process which has led to a situation where many of the cases that we have brought to the attention of the Truth Commission we cannot actually name the particular health professionals involved. We are not going to name those health professionals but we feel it is really a travesty of the process of truth to arrive at a situation where we cannot speak openly. We fought for many years for a situation where people will be free to speak the truth and it seems that legal mechanisms have been invoked to limit the extent to which the truth could be disclosed. We would like the TRC to take note of that, particularly the fact that as far as the Project was concerned we were able to supply the TRC with the names of the doctors as far as we understand within the required time.
“Just in that regard we can talk about the kinds of cases we would have discussed…
“We also raise issues around military health personnel and we particularly want to challenge the SAMS whose presentation yesterday did not touch on any of the issues that we’ve raised and I think Commissioner Ramashala has certainly posed the question to them, but we have presented evidence regarding programmes which involved the re-programming, the use of aversion therapy for gay men in the military and we believe that these cases require further investigation, and the TRC, we would hope, would follow up in that regard.”
The South African Press Association (SAPA) described the shock therapy allegations raised by the HHRP in 1997:
The HHRP said Levine was first named in a December 1986/January 1987 edition of the War Resister, a publication of the Committee of SA War Resisters.
According to the publication, Levin was chief psychiatrist at the military hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte near Pretoria in the 1970s, when he practiced aversion therapy with gay conscripts who were admitted to the psychiatric ward.
Electrodes were strapped to the arms of the subject and wires leading from these were in turn connected to a machine. The subject was then shown a picture of a naked man and encouraged to fantasise freely.
While he was doing this, he would be subjected to electric shocks.
“The increase in the current would cause the muscles of the forearm to contract – an extremely painful sensation,” the article said.
When the subject was screaming with pain, the current would be switched off and a colour Playboy centrefold substituted for the previous pictures.
“The pscyhiatrist [sic] (in most cases Levine) would then verbally describe the woman portrayed in glowing and positive terms. Sessions were held twice daily for three to four days.”
The HHRP said although the subjects had to give their consent, most were between the age of 18 and 24 and were still coming to terms with their sexualtiy [sic].
It said the practice of aversion therapy appeared to stop when Levine left the hospital.
The last comment is curious, as Aubrey Levin has denied participating in aversion techniques — yet some of the allegations seem to point to him having championed them. The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE, now known as the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project and which asked for a commission to investigate the medical torture allegations) claimed to have:
two boxes of papers documenting the 1968 Immorality Amendment Bill. Item B106 is an eager letter from a loyal member of the ruling, pro-apartheid National Party who claims to have successfully ‘treated’ homosexuals and wants to be invited to address the all-white Parliament on this subject. The letter is signed by Dr. Aubrey Levin, “medical practitioner and psychiatrist in training.”
What is widely alleged is that as a colonel in the South African military and chief psychiatrist in Pretoria in the 1970s and 80s, Levin was in charge of a unit where electric shocks were administered to “cure” gay white conscripts. Levin was also claimed to have overseen the use of electroshocks and powerful drugs against conscientious objectors refusing to fight for the apartheid army in Angola or suppress dissent in the black townships. From The Guardian:
Levin also treated drug users, principally soldiers who smoked marijuana, and men who objected to serving in the apartheid-era military on moral grounds, who were classified as “disturbed”.
Levin subjected some patients to narco-analysis or a “truth drug”, involving the slow injection of a barbiturate before the questioning began. In an interview with the Guardian 10 years ago, he did not deny its use but said it was solely to help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Levin said he left South Africa only because of the high crime rate, and denied abusing human rights. He said electric shock therapy was a standard “treatment” for gay people at the time and those subjected to it did so voluntarily.
“Nobody was held against his or her will. We did not keep human guinea pigs, like Russian communists; we only had patients who wanted to be cured and were there voluntarily,” he told the Guardian in 2000.
Aubrey Levin Comes to Canada
In the dying days of apartheid in South Africa, anxiety was high about the nation’s transition to full democracy, about whether the transition of power could remain (mostly) peaceful, and about what the implications could be for people of authority (especially if English or Afrikaaner) under the old regime. In 1994, a general election was held amid car bombings and other scattered violence, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was proposed. The inquiry would commence the following year.
Whether or not he left South Africa because of fears of crime as he claimed, amid that tide of change, the colonel and chief psychiatrist at Ward 22 in the Voortrekkerhoogte military hospital in Pretoria (and former head of psychiatry at the University of the Orange Free State) did what anyone afraid of uncertain consequences might do: he fled to a place that he felt was most friendly to his worldview, and most willing to look the other way about anything he might be alleged to have done, regardless of whether those allegations were true or not.
And so, before he could be called to testify at the TRC, Aubrey Levin fled to Canada. There, after a brief stint as regional director for the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, he became a professor of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Calgary, and established a practice at the Peter Lougheed Hospital.
Canadian media continue to fear looking at the Aversion Project, due to the fact that the allegations remain untested in court. But in looking at this past, some patterns emerge.
“Consent” and the Clinic
The Daily Mail and Guardian published a 132-page study entitled “The Aversion Project,” although it is now difficult to find it archived online. In that report, we find the one peculiar link that does in fact connect what happened in South Africa (whether Levin was involved or directed the Project, or not) to the incidents of abuse in Calgary for which Levin was charged: a gross distortion of the idea of “consent” within a clinical setting in which patients didn’t genuinely have an option on whether to consent, and little to no information about what they’d be subject to.
The medical profession is reputed for pathologising any form of behaviour. For example, it is known that the military has a history of doing sex change operations— many sex changes were done in Military hospitals. One has to ask to what extent this was experimental. (Workshop 1999) Although in any medical advancement there is always a cutting edge of experimentation, in total institutions there is a captive audience. The question then reverts to one of ‘informed consent’ and whether the choices people are given are limited because they cannot say ‘no’.
In any total institution, one has a captive audience, and the medics have protective insularity through their profession, so the environment is open for abuses to take place. Therefore special care should be taken not to abuse people’s rights. The Bill of Rights perspective should not only be applied to homosexuals, but seen in a broader light. There is the problem of marginalising groups again, but on the other hand the issues of the minority group should remain visible.
In a July interview for the Mail and Guardian for that study (now offline but referenced by the Gully), Levin was said to have admitted participating in aversion therapy, but denied some even more shocking allegations of forced gender reassignment. The Gully articles claimed that former army surgeons estimated as many as 900 surgeries took place (a number that seems to come from journalist Paul Kirk and writer Terry Bell, although it’s not certain if this number includes chemical castrations or other medical procedures that differ from contemporary sex reassignment). It’s important to repeat that Levin has never been publicly charged with any of the things alleged here, and rumours and allegations should not be confused with convictions.
When Levin has referred to treatments administered at Voortrekkerhoogte, his claims that the treatments were given to consenting patients may seem true from his own perspective… if one overlooks the participants’ situational vulnerability, the lack of information given to them, and the many various things that they could be threatened with — dishonourable discharge, outing to families and communities, the potential for trumped up charges, rewards for co-operation, and even the manipulation of internalized homophobic guilt, stigma and shame (which would have been much more common and seemed more monolithic in the context of the 1970s and 1980s).
The question of whether one can consent when the subject is a captive audience is a profound (though circumstantial) link between the Aversion Project and Levin’s Canadian convictions. Even if he were simply present at Voortrekkerhoogte during the practices that the Aversion Project is known for, the application of those practices could have provided Aubrey Levin with the strategies to carry out his later abuses in Canada. And to him, they might have all seemed technically “consensual.”
The Captive Audience
The power disparity, too, cannot be discounted.
I’ve never been to Calgary’s Forensic Assessment Outpatient Service (FAOS), but I am familiar with its Edmonton counterpart, Forensic Assessment Community Services (FACS). FACS was the downtown clinic that dealt with many of the city’s “hard” cases — people who needed medication to manage psychosis, who were ordered by the courts to undergo psychiatric evaluation, who got into trouble and couldn’t afford reputable help, who had no money or community supports, or who had been referred by hospitals after attempting to self-harm. In Edmonton’s clinic, it was also one of the two clinics in the Province of Alberta that treated transitioning transsexuals… so I became amply familiar with it. It was a space thick with desperation and rage, a high-security clinic where the waiting room would at once be awash with tension and hopelessness and fear. One had to be buzzed into the back where the therapists offices are, often escorted. I hesitate to portray the clinics too negatively, because many of the people there have been held down by poverty and strife, and sincerely try to rise above the circumstances that resulted in their treatment. The clinicians, too, are often dedicated to their work, even if the extension of one hand in empathy is balanced with readying for conflict, with the other. Yet, the setting can’t help but feel oppressive. Some of the doctors were burned out; others had an intense dedication to their work, but the circumstances in which they practiced left them hardened, jaded. When one is at a clinic like FAOS or FACS, it’s often because they have no choice, whether legal, economic or otherwise — one has nowhere else to go, and usually has several hoops to jump through in order to access the care that ones life is dependent on, in some way.
People are particularly vulnerable in a place like FAOS and FACS, and often not very respected when they go into care. There are often conditions at every step, such as required follow-up reports to probation officers, or else subsidized housing or income (such as Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped support) are dependent on continued treatment. It’s also a setting where small gestures easily put one into a dependence scenario. In a clinic like FACS or FAOS, a therapist is in a position of control from which he could threaten to withdraw his support for a patient’s social assistance, or even terminate care in a way that would land them back in jail. And although outside of the mandate at FAOS, it’s certainly possible that a therapist could increase patients’ dependence by providing some food or loose change — as happens, in that setting. This was all in addition to the intimidation patients would experience by the visible respect forensic therapists had within the psychiatric and legal communities. It’s obvious to me why the original complainant felt he had to record the sessions more than once in order to be believed by authorities (and why prosecutors found the trial particularly difficult). When a therapist takes someone to the private examination room, they could be more or less helpless to do anything other than play along. From the testimony of RB, the complainant (his name is under a publication ban) who secretly filmed two visits, and who was seeing Dr. Levin by court order:
“I didn’t know what to do, because I knew Dr. Levin could send me to jail by the snap of his fingers,” the man said.
“Now that I think about it I think he would say that I was delusional.
“I was scared that they would tell Dr. Levin that I said that … he would deny it and I would be in jail, or a straight jacket — who knows.”
Whether or not anything regarding Aubrey Levin’s alleged association with The Aversion Project can ever be substantiated, the overlapping similarities between those things that are known provide some important lessons.
What remains to be seen is whether anyone hears and learns from them.
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)
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.
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.