Archive for the ‘ Gender Diversity ’ Category

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect


In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

Take this characterization at the socially conservative website LifeSiteNews (LSN), one of Peterson’s staunch media supporters, as one example:

“[Peterson] was condemned by transgender groups, targeted at a protest, and at a free speech rally in his support, his speech drowned out by yells and “white noise” from his opponents….”

That “white noise” was speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to

Canada’s forthcoming “drop your pants” trans* blood donation policy

In addition to reducing the required wait time between having sex and donating blood to one year for gay men, Canadian Blood Services is poised to release its first-ever guidance on how CBS personnel should respond to potential trans* donors: if it’s in you to give, then drop your pants.  While the policy has not yet been released officially, it was leaked to Buzzfeed, and is being corroborated by the health organization’s representatives on Twitter.

Oh, you don’t have to literally drop your pants. Canadian Blood Services doesn’t actually want to see your junk — they just want to know what’s there. Because that’s not invasive at all.

That is, I assume that no one is checking your junk. But it depends on whether voluntary information is sought by CBS, or some other proof. Identification doesn’t help verify genital status, because most provinces allow ID changes prior to surgery.  Requiring surgery proved to be discriminatory, prohibitive and created significant hardships for lengthy stretches of trans* peoples’ lives, if not indefinitely. [There is an interesting historical fact about that: surgery-based ID policies followed a precedent set by Sweden, where lawmakers in the early 1970s deliberately chose that benchmark, because it would ensure that sterilization occurred.]

The reasoning to the new CBS policy is that if your partner is male and you’re a pre- or non-operative trans* woman, post-operative trans* man, or a not-medically-inclined-at-all gender diverse person who has a penis, then CBS considers you to be a man who has sex with men (MSM). Besides seeming very reminiscent of ultra-conservative judgments about what constitutes a “real” woman or man, it also makes presumptions about one’s partners — i.e. insisting that a straight male who dates a trans* women is actually gay — and other judgments that are potentially shaming in nature.

It does raise some questions, though. For example, why would it take a year following genital surgery to become safe enough for trans* women with male partners to donate blood (by contrast, genital surgery would be immediately disqualifying for trans* men with male partners)? And if a potential trans* donor has slept with trans* partners, does the surgical status of everyone need to be disclosed?

The change follows a similar policy enacted for gay men in the U.S. last year, although that policy honoured trans* peoples’ own self-identification and considered their self-disclosed sexual history, rather than demanding intimate medical information.

Incredibly enough, this is actually an improvement over the previous situation with Canadian Blood Services, in which the ability to donate blood was mostly dependent on the subjective decision of clinic staff, and often saw trans* people of either and / or neither gender automatically classified as “MSM” — and sometimes, the sex of their partner(s) or whether they’d been sexually active at all were considered altogether irrelevant details.

Probably nothing better illustrates just how arbitrary and regressive abstinence-before-donating policies and adherence to narrow-sighted MSM classification are.  The change is also very poorly-timed, following the shocking massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which saw the community hardest hit by the violence — predominantly Latinx LGBT people — unable to donate blood to help their loved ones and siblings-in-spirit (despite some misinformation circulating at the time).

Now, to be entirely fair to the Canadian health agency, this mode of thought didn’t originate with Canadian Blood Services.

For example, “Men who have Sex with Men (MSM)” terminology originated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other early public health organizations. It was ironically intended to be more inclusive than only focusing on gay men, but had the (theoretically unintended) result of invalidating trans* peoples’ gender identification. For the longest time, though, international health NGOs resisted acknowledging the existence of trans* people, and stubbornly insisted the classification was adequate… which only reinforced the impression that the invalidation was deliberate.

In fact, “MSM” language, thinking and subsequent HIV activism and education (aside from whatever mitigation occurred at the grassroots level) has a history of alienating trans* people, and confounding safe sex initiatives, outreach and data-gathering among trans* populations — a tragic situation for a community in which infection rates remain significantly high.  Even LGB(t) organizations perpetuated the problem, although this gradually improved around the start of this decade. [I first wrote about this (albeit with imperfect terminology, too) back in 2010, after being excoriated by an LGB(t) organization representative collecting data, who launched into a tirade saying that by declining to push a horribly-phrased survey on trans* people, I’d be “‘guilty of the murder of’ every transsexual woman who perished from HIV who might have benefited from the study.”  Yes, things have not always been amiable.]

Canadian Blood Services came into being specifically because of the scandal raised in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from screening failures of NGOs like the Red Cross during the AIDS crisis.  Its policies are directed by Health Canada.

Being fair to CBS also requires one to acknowledge a few further facts:

  1. There is a short window of time (roughly a couple of weeks in most cases, but sometimes up to a few months) in which HIV still evades detection, and
  2. Penile-anal intercourse (PAI) remains a high-risk mode of transmission.

Of these, penile-anal intercourse — the premise on which the “MSM” policy is premised — notably also occurs with some frequency among heterosexual partners, while not all gay men engage in it.  On the other hand, targeting specific communities instead of activities has created an inherent bias, and allows homophobic and transphobic organizations and figureheads to perpetuate stigma.

The number of sexual partners one has had in the previous year is also a crucial factor, which “MSM” screening on its own fails to account for.

Before forming government, the Liberal Party had petitioned to end the blood donor deferral policy altogether. When the one-year deferral policy for men was released, Health Minister Jane Philpott was quoted as saying:

“The desire is to be able to have those deferrals based on behaviour as opposed to sexual orientation.” 

This statement, of course, is the right direction.

The new practice, on the other hand, is destined to be an embarrassing anachronism.

As incremental as it may be, the policy that has been issued for (non-trans*) gay men fails, exactly because it continues to fixate on who is donating, rather than what their specific sexual history and risk factors are.  And when the attempt is made to extend that same policy to trans* people, its shaky logic disintegrates altogether.

(Crossposted to

Canada’s Trans* Rights Bill Now Endorses Bans in Washroom and Gendered Spaces

Canada’s trans* human rights bill C-279 was amended by a Senate committee, in a way that makes it legal to ban trans* people from washrooms and gendered spaces appropriate to their gender identity.

Sen. Donald Plett, Conservative member of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, added a legal exemption for “any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only, such as a correctional facility, crisis counseling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room.”  The amendment passed with six of the committee members supporting it, four opposed, and one abstention.

There were two other unanimous amendments made.  One added the category of “sex” to the protections in the Criminal Code (which has long been a bizarre and serious omission from hate crimes legislation).  The other removed the definition of “gender identity” which had been added in the House of Commons as a condition of passing the bill, back in 2013.  Because the bill has been amended, it would need to return to the House for a final vote before being enacted.  It is thought unlikely that the bill would be brought forward before an election call — and now, if it did, the bill’s original proponents would oppose it — meaning that C-279 is almost certainly dead.

“The very act that is designed to prohibit discrimination is being amended to allow discrimination,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Grant Mitchell, pointed out.  “It holds people who are law-abiding, full-fledged and equal members of our society accountable for the potential — the very, very long-shot potential — that someone would misuse this to justify a criminal act.” (The transcript has not been posted yet, but the videocast is still available)

Sen. Plett has long claimed that the bill would be exploited by pedophiles and rapists to attack women and children in washrooms, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by law enforcement officials and other experts:

Minneapolis Police Department: Fears About Sexual Assault “Not Even Remotely” A Problem. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told Media Matters in an interview that sexual assaults stemming from Minnesota’s 1993 transgender non-discrimination law have been “not even remotely” a problem. Based on his experience, the notion of men posing as transgender women to enter women’s restrooms to commit sex crimes “sounds a little silly,” Elder said. According to Elder, a police department inquiry found “nothing” in the way of such crimes in the city… [Phone interview, 3/11/14]”

Additionally, criminal activity in a washroom or gendered space would continue to remain criminal regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.  On the other hand, trans* women face very real dangers when institutionally housed with men or made to use segregated facilities according to their birth sex.

Nevertheless, bathroom-related fearmongering has been the cause of several petitions and campaigns to kill trans* human rights legislation in North America.  It has also started to spawn draconian bathroom-policing bills (some of which ignore the actual genital status of the person, even though genitals are allegedly the rationale for the law):

“Building managers who “repeatedly allow” trans people to use the bathroom that accords with their gender identity would, however, face up to two years in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine under the proposed law.

“… If passed, the law could tighten how Texas defines gender, not only singling out transgender people, but those who have chromosomes that don’t fit the strict definition laid out in the bill, like intersex individuals. The bill reads:

” For the purpose of this section, the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes. A male is an individual with at least one X chromosome and at least one Y chromosome, and a female is an individual with at least one X chromosome and no Y chromosomes. If the individual’s gender established at the individual’s birth is not the same as the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes, the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes controls under this section…”

Plett’s reasoning essentializes trans* women as being “biological males” (“… and I will use ‘men’ because I believe they are biological men — ‘transgender,’ but biologically, they are men”), and asserts that they are inherently a threat to cis* (non-trans*) women.  When it was pointed out that his amendment would require trans* men to use womens’ facilities, Plett appeared indifferent, and he later referred to a young trans* man as “she.”  Plett added that he believed his amendment would allow “separate but equal treatment.”

Bill C-279 would affect only areas under federal jurisdiction, such as federal facilities, the Armed Forces, federal agencies, and First Nations reserves.  But it had been seen as a potentially important symbol of human rights protection to have specific federal inclusion.  Canadian human rights commissions consider trans* people written into legislation, but without explicit inclusion, there remains a possibility of an overturn in court precedent (where application is not as certain).  Meanwhile, companies that take direction from federal legislation continue to not see a need to develop policies for trans* employees.

The Northwest Territories was the first Canadian jurisdiction to pass trans-inclusive legislation, in 2002.  Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan all have provincial protections.  In British Columbia, a similar bill, M-211, has been blocked by B.C. Liberals, who refuse to allow it to face a vote or discussion.

Former Member of Parliament Bill Siksay first introduced a trans* human rights bill in 2005, and continued to reintroduce it in every Parliamentary session, until it eventually passed in the House of Commons. However, it was awaiting ratification in the Senate when a federal election was called, which killed the bill.  In 2011, Siksay left federal politics, and Randall Garrison reintroduced it as C-279.  In 2012, many trans* people stopped campaigning for the bill when the characteristic of gender expression was deleted from the bill, and a definition of gender identity was added.

(A version of this article also appears at and The Bilerico Project)

Google Trends on “Transgender”

Posted for discussion and interest value.

Out of curiosity, I plunked the word “transgender” into Google Trends.  It’s not my terminology of choice, but it’s what most people use and what the general public is most likely to search for.  Here’s what I got:


The numbers aren’t an exact value of something, but a comparative value versus the highest peak on record, which is apparently right now.  Or as Google Trends puts it:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “pizza,” we’d consider this 100. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume. Learn more

I don’t know if there were other stories that occurred during the same months of those peaks and contributing to the results — it’s possible, I’ve only noted what Google flagged as the top search item.

A few more charts:




Presented without commentary, in case anyone is curious.

On the Detention of Trans People

(This article has been updated with information newly disclosed in a report by Global News — Mercedes, 24April14)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Remember that phrase.  It’s going to simplify something that might otherwise seem like a complicated issue.

So this British comedian walks into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Some of you have heard this one before…

The treatment of trans people (particularly trans women) in detention facilities, in the correctional system and in border security has come under re-examination recently, following the story of 25-year old Avery Edison.  The British comedian had overstayed her student visa during a previous visit to Canada, and so upon her return, she was detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).  That would all be unremarkable, if not for the fact that she is trans… which means that CBSA did not feel they had a space to accommodate her, and instead sent her to spend the night in a mens’ prison.

This led to a backlash against CBSA (and to a degree also Correctional Services Canada, which has a similar policy to CBSA and which provided the prison facility).  By evening, it was being reported that Avery was being moved to the Vanier Centre for Women.  She has since returned to the U.K. (and has talked about the experience on a few occasions).

But although Edison’s situation has been resolved, her experience leaves unanswered questions about how trans people are handled in correctional and detention systems.  And since her situation, two other incidents have brought the issue back to media attention.

A Human Rights Law Point of Note

Human rights law with regard to trans people is still in a state of flux.  In the discussion about Avery’s situation, people pointed to Toby’s Act, a trans human rights law that had been passed in the Province of Ontario, and claimed that the detention was a violation of that law.  But even though Edison’s detention happened in Toronto, Toby’s Act does not apply.  The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) — like Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and the RCMP — is a federal agency, and therefore subject to federal legislation.

On the other hand, Randall Garrison’s federal trans human rights bill, C-279 — which passed in Parliament and is awaiting approval by the Senate — would apply… but it hasn’t received Royal Assent as of yet.  A similar but more comprehensive bill (Bill Siksay’s C-389) passed in the previous Parliament, but died before receiving Senate approval, when an election was called.  C-279 would apply to federal institutions, while most peoples’ employment, housing and access-to-service situations remain provincial in jurisdiction.  And to be fair, even if Bill C-279 had been given Royal Assent, it would still likely take CBSA, CSC and other federal agencies some time to bring their policies in line to be consistent with it.

However, they have had since at least 2011 to realize that there would eventually need to be a policy change, and have not done anything (including other previous issues at the border alone, in 2013).  A trans human rights law will inevitably pass, whether in this session or in the next Parliament.  The time to plan for and begin that change is now.

Housing of Trans Inmates and Detainees

Correctional and detention facilities currently house trans people (and people who were born with intersex medical conditions) according to the configuration of their genitalia — if you have a penis, you’re housed with males, and if you have a vagina, you’re housed with females.   This policy is also accompanied by a lot of gender essentialism, invalidation, misgendering and antagonism, both from hostile staff and from other detainees or inmates.  And although some will minimize this as inconsequential or as mere expressions of free speech, the lived experience of it is in fact one of deliberate and sustained hostility and dehumanization.

This housing policy can create a cyclical problem in which trans people are housed contrary to their gender identities because of their genitalia, but are also then denied access to medical care like genital reassignment surgery (GRS), which would (by extension) be a crucial step toward obtaining more appropriate housing.  In the U.S., a 14-year-long series of lawsuits pertaining to access to medical services continues, following the appeal of the most recent verdict in Michelle Kosilek’s favour.

In Canada, a human rights complaint had resolved the issue in trans peoples’ favour in 2001, but a 2010 directive from the Harper government instructed CSC to stop funding GRS surgeries, anyway.  The post-2001 policy is still on CSC’s website, but the actual practice under the Harper government has been to ignore the policy and deny GRS, which the government insists is not essential (contrary to the medical consensus).  The Conservative government does so via a distortion of the “real life test” (RLE, better known as “real life experience”) recommended by the WPATH Standards of Care (SoC).  The SoC requires living as ones identified gender for one year in the community, and the government considers that RLE suspended when a person is incarcerated (contrary to WPATH’s intent).  This “suspension” of the RLE also opens up the possibility of ignoring an inmate’s attempt to transition, or denying things like hormone therapy, although it’s not certain if this is occurring.  Prisoners’ Legal Services, based in B.C., is fighting to change CSC’s interpretation of the RLE.

Of course, there are two larger issues outside of this vicious circle.  The first is that “trans” covers a diversity of people.  Trans can signify a biological transition from one’s birth sex to their identified sex (which treads into medical territory, and refers to the people most commonly thought of), or a need to live between genders or independent of gender somehow (mostly through various modes of gender expression, but also sometimes involving some medical transition) — or some combination of those two characteristics.  [NB: the reason I use “trans” terminology, in fact, is to demonstrate that I’m referring to a diversity of people who are not easily defined under a single label]  For trans people who need surgery, there is often an anxiety and dysphoria that can make it a substantial and urgent need — but not all trans people experience that dysphoria or require surgery.

That leads to the second larger issue — that a person shouldn’t have to undergo major surgery/ies in order to be entitled to the same human rights and dignity as their peers.

And everyday practice does not always align with policy, for that matter. In American prisons, there have been cases where housing was sometimes not even determined by genitalia or identification documents — even though those are the policies — but by a subjective visual assessment of a person’s gender.  And sometimes, they have been completely wrong.  It has certainly led to trans women being housed with men even if they have had genital reassignment surgery.  Canadian prisons may have a better track record in this regard (although Avery Edison had a female gender marker on her ID), but it really depends on the employees empowered to make judgment calls.  We’ll return to that point.

Identity Documents

Part of what discourages institutions like CBSA and CSC from addressing trans accommodations is the fact that identity documents further confuse the issue.

Most provinces have policies requiring surgery and a doctor’s examination of genitals before gender markers can be updated — something that brings up human rights issues, especially when one considers that a genital reassignment surgery requirement is also a form of sterilization, essentially barring trans people from future procreation.  If that sounds like stretching to you, it’s worth remembering that at one time, some countries consciously codified this into their laws.

This surgery requirement creates hardships, however.  As not everyone medically transitions and/or proceeds to surgery, this results in incongruent identification.  For those who do transition medically, the process is at minimum a year (recommended by the current medical standards of care set by WPATH), but more often takes several, especially when there are barriers in accessing medical care, financial issues and other challenges.  During this time, incongruent identification opens people up to disenfranchisement, discrimination and even violence.

For this reason, some provinces have been revising their policies.  This is an important step to allowing trans people to participate in society, but in the interim, it also creates a situation in which identity documents are inconsistent from province to province.

In terms of border security, they’re even less consistent from country to country.  Some provinces (and some U.S. states) do not allow trans people to change the gender marker on their identification ever (regardless of surgical status).  A few nations are now starting to include the option of third gender markers (such as “X” for “not specified”).

And even when policies of accommodation exist, sometimes the steps to get there are amazingly inscrutable — witness this handy flow chart spanning three pages, outlining the steps a trans person needs to go through to obtain a gender-congruent passport, in Canada.

Consequently, identification documents can’t — at this point in time, at least — provide any definitive guidance on how trans people should be housed in correctional or detention situations.

(Trigger warning: there is some general discussion about rape and the fear of potential rape situations below)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Entities like CBSA and CSC are often afraid to look at changing their policies on trans people because it seems too daunting a task — and the complexities of identification certainly reinforce this impression.  Often, the idea of housing a woman who has a penis with other women also brings up the spectre of rape in womens’ institutions, and so correctional systems can be loath to considering change.

It is unreasonable to assume that women who have penises are automatically potential sex predators.  On the other hand, it is also unreasonable to require that all women with penises be accommodated in general female populations.  What’s missing is context, and a reasonable assessment of the risk that any individual (because predators exist in any characteristic population, even among cis women) poses to others.  A woman with a history of violence is justifiably going to be viewed differently from one who overstayed her visa.  An individual’s history must absolutely be taken into account.  Accommodation as one’s identified gender is an ideal situation, but violence, predation and other factors in detained individuals’ histories certainly has to be considered.

And yet, the solution is far easier than one might expect.  Housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” allows for situation-relative options, while still providing dignity for trans people and safety for all concerned.  Accommodations for a trans woman might be a female facility, a trans- or LGBT-focused facility, short-term isolation or semi-isolation, or some other alternative.  No one solution fits all — for example, a trans-focused wing might still deny people access to programs that are available to other inmates and which they would otherwise qualify for — so a final decision is inevitably context-dependent.  Individual histories and risk assessments can be taken into account.  Individuals can be moved according to the varying levels of risk they both pose and are potentially subject to from other inmates (the latter seems to often be forgotten when discussing housing of trans people).  And yet a trans woman’s identity as a woman can still be respected.

One’s gender identity can be determined through a combination of factors, starting with a person’s own self-identification, and verified through supporting information, such as the individual’s gender expression, their identification (if updated), the name that they are currently using (i.e. if found on a piece of mail or correspondence on their cell phone), a letter from their doctor, or other supporting information.  There should be some flexibility, because hard-specifying particular forms of verification can be problematic: for example, not everyone can afford to update their legal identity information; also, requiring a letter from a doctor can create an institutional barrier to being accorded one’s human rights.

An individual’s own wishes should also be taken into account.   For example, some trans men are uncomfortable with the idea of being housed with males in detention and correctional systems.  And some trans people do not identify as either gender.

Although there may not be a hard-and-fast rule for every situation, housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” provides a respectable base from which to start, within the context of nearly any given situation.

It’s More Than Housing

It’s absolutely crucial that staff receive training on professional communication with and treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming inmates.  They also need to be aware of intersex conditions enough to respect individuals who may not identify as trans, but still not neatly fit into binary housing defined by physical sex.

Police forces have begun to revise their policies surrounding strip searches of trans people, so that they’re searched by a person of their identified gender, or else they can opt for a “split search,” with one male and one female officer.  This is because strip searches of trans women by male officers has historically resulted in abuse, and resulted in a 2006 ruling asserting trans peoples’ right to dignity.

Correctional and border security institutions need to adopt similar policies, and to also ban gratuitous searches or physical examinations of transgender inmates and those with intersex conditions solely for determining their genital status.  If the need for a genital examination arises outside of a necessary strip search scenario, it should be conducted by medical professionals, with the understanding that the option to be examined by a medical professional of ones identified gender should still apply.

Rape and Torture Were Not the Penalty

People who are incarcerated in the correctional system are usually not given a lot of sympathy, and people detained by border and immigration services have been increasingly seen with the same kind of negativity (or at best, ambivalence).  It’s important to remember that regardless of what a person has done, they’re still entitled to due process and the same rights and dignity of others in the correctional system.  We certainly don’t sentence people to prison rape, for example.  As soon as a person is targeted for specifically additional treatment because of who they are, that quickly becomes cruel and unusual punishment.  And it’s important for social movements to care about all of those within their constituencies — even those who make mistakes.

In the case of trans people in detention situations or worse, that cruel and unusual punishment starts with constant hostility and antagonism pertaining to their gender identities.  Pronouns and names become weapons, and that is simply the start.  Trans women housed in male facilities also become very obvious targets for potential rape.  This is significant, and it can be argued that by consciously and deliberately housing trans women with men, the Canadian government may in fact be institutionally sanctioning that rape.

Institutions usually try to reduce this risk of rape by keeping trans people in administrative segregation — a nicer way of saying “solitary confinement.”  This removes social interaction almost entirely, it is psychologically devastating, and the United Nations asserts that over 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement classifies as torture.  For trans women, solitary confinement is sometimes the full length of their incarceration.

Avery Edison’s story and those that have followed reveal not only a problem with housing by CBSA and CSC, but also a severe education issue among staff in both the border and correctional systems. Both can be remedied… it’s just a question of whether institutions want to do so.

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.