Status of Transgender Life in Canada

(Update 2013: I wouldn’t even consider doing a post like this now.  But at the time this was written, few trans Canadians — at least outside Toronto and a couple other major centres — wanted to respond to surveys or be politically engaged in any way.  In 2008, I tried to compile this to the best of my ability, voicing concerns that were raised in support groups and on message board — anything I was aware of at the time.  It’s inadequate, under-representative and is in dire need of updating with survey-based information.  I leave it in place because it does provide an introduction to some mostly transsexual-specific needs for people who are just starting to learn about trans issues.  A note on context: this was written before “parental rights” came to mean the right of a parent to ensure their child wouldn’t be exposed to LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying education or things contradicting their faith — the context below refers to the right of trans people to parent, and to not be depriced of custody of kids simply because they’re trans.)

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In response to some comments from curious folk regarding my article, “Transbigotry?” I thought I’d chronicle a bit about the current situation in Canada.

Hate Crimes Protection and Human Rights

Hate crimes protection exists somewhat unofficially in places, but combined with crimes against GLB folk, resulting in a situation in which there are often no statistics that can be sifted through specific to us.  “Sexual orientation” was added to the Criminal Code in 2004, but at that time, the NDP motion (tabled by Svend Robinson) left transgender folks behind.

“Gender Identity” and “Gender Expression,” however, are not included in any Human Rights Charter in Canada, except in the Northwest Territories (NWT – and this inclusion was more fluke than anything, and has not been tested to my knowledge).  In practice, however, human rights of transpeople vary based on different court rulings, in which inclusion is sometimes made based on alternate bases of “gender / sex” or “disability” (from the classification in the DSM-IV).

Employment

Protection in employment is governed by court rulings (which is also the same process by which Canadians acquired the right to same-sex marriage).  In Alberta, there was a victory based on a read-in protection under “sex,” and this ruling has influenced some cases in other Provinces.  I may be wrong, but I believe that Saskatchewan and Ontario have protective rulings, and likely other provinces as well.  In B.C. however, in the case of Kimberly Nixon vs. Rape Relief, the provincial Supreme Court ruled that Rape Relief had the ability to discriminate with regard to Nixon volunteering, and noted among other things that transgender people are not specifically protected in the Human Rights Charter.  This note may have been meant to draw attention to this fact and call for it to be addressed in a subsequent appeal, but when the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, the court refused to hear it.  Consequently, that the B.C. court ruling stands.

Marriage

Same-sex marriage is recognized federally, so marriage versus new or old identity is never an issue.  We have seen, however, how this victory has removed any vagueness that existed before, and most of us upon reflecting on this would tell Americans that the same-sex marriage battle is an important cause to support – especially when one starts looking at the mixed and troubling rulings made in various courts in different U.S. states.

 Parental Rights

These are also often determined on a case-by-case basis in court.  There was one definite victory in Alberta, but also some losses in Canada, some even in the same province, subsequent to the victory.  Much of the trouble arises from the DSM-IV definition of Gender Identity Disorder as a mental disorder.  Vengeful spouses can still use this as a potent weapon before a judge, unless one has good representation which will educate judge and / or jury how GID will not detrimentally affect children.

The Drive for Clear Legislation

On December 11th, 2007, NDP Member of Parliament Bill Siksay (Burnaby-Douglas) tabled a Private Member’s Bill (C-494) that would add “Gender Identity” and “Gender Expression” to characteristics protected under the hate propaganda portion of the Criminal Code of Canada.  An earlier Private Member’s Bill, C-326, proposes to add “Gender Identity” and “Gender Expression” as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.  A previous version of C-326 was tabled in 2005 and died at the end of that parliament sitting.

Siksay’s Bill addresses the lack of explicit protection for transsexual and transgender people under the current hate provisions of the Criminal Code. It will also allow judges to take into account whether crimes committed were motivated by hatred of transgender or transsexual people when they are determining the sentence of an offender.

Many are doubtful of these Bills’ chances of passing under the spectre of a Conservative government, and activity with regard to these bills has been very slow.  But it is a positive step, possibly inspired by the ENDA debate south of the border.

There is also some discussion that the newer NDP bill is a sort of face-saving measure, preceeding (only by a couple of days) the ejection of transgender activist Micheline Montrueil (who has won several legal precedents for transgender people in the Province of Quebec and in Canada) as a candidate for that party.  The NDP describe her as being “not a team player,” while she has heard that other candidates and party members have voiced objections to being associated with her.  This situation may call for some scrutiny in coming months.

Canada’s HRC?

In Canada, the primary LGBT organization is egaleCanada.  Like the HRC in the U.S., there appears to be some GLB members’ resistence to trans issues, and its track record has involved a lot of transgender committee formations, disempowerments of those committees, and then the leaving of committee members twisting in the wind, taking the blame for the committee’s inaction and failure.  To be fair, rampant division between transgender factions have clearly also been a factor.  Unlike the HRC, however, some of this appears driven by members simply not understanding T-folk or knowing how to act on their behalf, and the bridges can and should be repaired. 

It is my hope that egaleCanada and its transgender troubles can be rectified.  But in the meantime, there is a dearth of any other national transgender representation, either trans-specific or LGBT.  Some initiatives have been tried, such as TransAction Canada, Canadian Transsexuals’ Fight for Rights and other attempts that have seen nominal participation, support and / or funding.  Transgender communities need to work toward greater consensus and unity in order to develop their own community and play better with the GLBT ones.

So while there are more protections in Canada than many states, the transgender communities in many ways lag behind those in the south, with the exception of a few tireless projects in select organized cities.  This is where we need to strive harder.

The Quest To Pee

On January 15th, 2008, the news came out of Gaithersburg, Maryland that someone had taken it upon themselves to test the controversial law on gender identity:

A man dressed as a woman walked into the women’s locker room at the Rio Sport and Health Club in Gaithersburg Monday, spawning concerns over a new controversial law designed to protect transgendered people.

Around 1 p.m. Monday, a man wearing a dress walked into the women’s locker room surprising Mary Ann Ondray who was drying her hair. “I could see his muscles, I could see his large hands. He was wearing a blue ruffled skirt that came down to above the knee.”

The male left without saying anything, but Ondray says, “I was very upset, I’m still upset. There’s a lot he could’ve seen.”

This comes at a time when the group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum are at a crucial moment in their drive to acquire signatures to have the new law put to a public referendum, in hopes of repealing it.  Naturally, many folks in the transgender community believe that this is a hoax, staged by someone with the religious right organizations or a church, with the intention of putting the fear of some distorted transgender bogeyman into the hearts of everyone.

 I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second and point out that legitimate transfolk who don’t pass as well as others (and sometimes even those who pass perfectly) are often miraculously transformed into “men in dresses” by the media. Truth doesn’t sell as well as sensationalism that panders to fearmongers and their flocks, and in fact I know from experience that there are folks in the community who have trouble passing and who would take the opportunity given by the new law to check out the local gym or spa. As should be their right.

I’m not saying that’s what happened. This does look like a setup. All of the indications point to someone orchestrating the most extreme situation (a blue ruffled skirt worn to the spa?). But chances are, this situation will come up someday somewhere, and be a legitimate person’s story transformed out of recognition by the media.

Either way, the stakes are rising in transfolks’ ongoing quest to pee.  Back in October 2007, a protest of a similar policy in Orono Maine saw a grandfather instruct his grandson to use the girls’ washroom at school whenever he saw a transgender student do it.  Michael S. Heath, Executive Director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, wrote:

… Should little girls be going to the bathroom next to little boys in elementary school? … We thank God for one courageous grandfather. Thank you, Paul Melanson, for taking a stand for common sense.

What the fearmongers are trying to foster is an overriding sense that children and women are seriously endangered by allowing transgender folk the right to use the washroom pertaining to the gender to which they identify.  In right-wing articles, there’s even a considerable amount of the use of the spectre of boys and girls peeing together igniting attempts to protest the implementation of those gender-neutral washrooms which consist of single-stall, locking restrooms.  Organized actions such as Notmyshower.net and petition drives are proliferating like stink.  Transgender initiatives such as safe2pee.org (which attempts to map out a comprehensive list of “safe” gender-neutral places to empty a bladder) have trouble making up for the hysteria, although they certainly deserve support.

Normally, one should question whether any of the fears have any foundation in reality.  Personally, I’ve never much thought of a washroom as a venue for dating.  And if I look at a woman in a washroom, it’s to compare clothing.  Otherwise, I just want to pee.  And last I checked, there haven’t been too many incidents of lesbians preying on other women in washrooms, either.  In a place like that, the common-sense default attitude to have is one of respect for others’ privacy — because one wishes to receive that in return.  As much as women may sometimes have an “ick” factor about the thought, all a transgender person wants to do in the washroom is coexist and pee in peace.

But unfortunately women and children have been victimized in washrooms on rare occasions for as long as there have been washrooms, by people of a predatory nature.  One concern about the debate for moderates, beyond that “ick” factor, is that there can be some legitimate worry that a law protecting gender identity in washrooms might protect or provide an alibi to such a predator (the lack of such a law, on the other hand, will not prevent such a thing from happening, it’s just about whether this law might provide convenient opportunity).  But this argument becomes not about transgender people anymore, at least not once the moderates have some idea who transgender people really are, beyond the Jerry Springer-driven stereotypes.

Much of the debate from the right-wing side starts out with a total disregard or disrespect for transsexuals, asserting that they can never really change their gender.  This allows them to draw upon an ongoing societal association made in which it is assumed that all crime is perpetrated by men against women.  And while the balance quite possibly tips that way, it is by no means exclusively so.  And in this way, a transgender debate once again touches upon issues that affect non-transgender people — in this case, cisgender males.

(Much of the potty argument, of course, pertains to the caricature of the male-to-female transsexual circulating out there.  This does not mean that female-to-male transsexuals don’t have any difficulties in washrooms — they do.  For FTMs, they quickly find out that in male spaces, anything that’s perceived remotely as either “effeminate” or “dykish” can push triggers because of various male insecurities, and lead to conflict on the spot.  But the fight doesn’t often spill out into the legal forum, so while this is not exclusively an MTF issue, it can be heavily so.)

 Not that the religious right will come out and acknowledge that the only legitimate part of their argument pertains to predominantly non-transgender predators.  It’s imperative to their agenda that they stubbornly forge ahead and equate transgender people with sexual deviants and pedophiles. They don’t want the moderates that they are trying to frighten to realize that if sex was a transperson’s motive for transitioning, then their hormone treatment would be totally self-defeating. They don’t want to better-word the law so that transgender people are protected and carefully distinguished from predators: they want the protections completely abolished, and would not be satisfied with anything else.  Hence, you can tell the bigots who drive this agenda by their stripes.

Some have suggested using a carry letter from a psychiatrist certifying someone as being transgender as a means to clearly and safely seperate transfolk from predators.  While reasonable on the surface, there are serious flaws with this idea.  With health care costs not covered in many places and medical services often being expensive and inaccessible, not everyone can go through the hoops of seeing a therapist to get such a carry letter… or wait the two or three cumulatively expensive appointments that a doctor might insist upon before issuing such a thing (if they do at all, considering that some prefer ex-gay “curative” measures over the medical standards of treatment set out in the DSM-IV).  And a carry letter is not always respected, as some security and law enforcement folk have taken the attitude that such a thing can be forged or that they are not familiar with it enough to acknowledge it.  No, if there is to be some determining factor, it has to be something that is accessible to the least disenfranchised of us (because there are a lot of us disenfranchised), and taken seriously without being used later as a weapon against us.

 But even such a concession would not satisfy the people driving the witch-hunt, the people who want our rights to be abolished wherever they might exist.  Because they are not truly afraid of the occasional predator.  They are afraid of transgender people, and afraid of their rights to discriminate, spew hate and vilify being taken away.

From WorldNetDaily, referring to a press byte that showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney nominally in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (also showing that even though protections of transgender people were stripped from that bill, we’re still being used as the ENDA bogeyman):

Then one day, a male employee comes to work dressed as a female.
This new law, supported by Romney, would forbid you from firing a
transvestite, because he is merely expressing his sexual
orientation.

Oh boo hoo.  They’re taking away my right to act like a bigot. 

When the anti-hate-crimes Matthew Shepard Act was dropped from a military spending bill recently, thereby stalling it, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Towers Online trumpeted:

“This is a big win for the cause of religious freedom and freedom of
speech,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics
& Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “For this victory, we owe a
great debt of gratitude to the courageous members of the House who
refused to bow to the pressure of political correctness and stood up
for the constitutional principles of freedom of speech and freedom
of religion.”

Current hate crimes law protects traits such as race, religion and
national origin, but the bill’s opponents say the new legislation is
unnecessary and would grant protection based on lifestyle. They also
warn it would move federal law toward punishing thoughts and
beliefs, since the motivation of a person charged with a hate crime
would have to be evaluated. In addition, some critics warn it could
lead to suppression of speech that describes homosexual behavior as
sinful. Supporters of the bill, however, contend it would only cover
violent criminal conduct.

 Dec 21, 2007, from the Christian Civic League Record:

Two things should be private — sex and what happens in the
bathroom….

The League is Maine’s conscience on this matter of
sexual morality. You can count on us not letting you down no matter
what the Bangor Daily News chooses to print.

As the year comes to a close you should make a financial
contribution. Unlike the Bangor Daily News which charges a
subscription, and sells advertising, everything we do is free to the
consumer. Our work is a gift from the evangelical church to the
people of Maine. Perhaps the benefits it provides are worth a
financial contribution to keep us strong?

Click on the paypal button above. Don’t wait.

Just like in the media, controversy sells.  The debate is about bigotry far moreso than predation, and pushing the controversy is good for business.  By their stripes, you will know them.

Transbigotry?

When I was about three or four years old – enough to be talking but not enough to be in kindergarten – my mother carried me through the lineup to the tellers at the bank. I had never seen a person of colour, and so I’d been awed to see a tall fellow with that “purple”-deep colour of skin. I turned to my mother and said, “oh, mom, I’d never let myself get that dirty.”

My embarassed mother kindly explained that some people are simply born with darker skin, and that ended my experience of personally-felt racial bigotry. A few years later, I learned from a close friend I’d made from Trinidad that skin colours sometimes come with cultural differences. It never occurred to me that any one skin colour or culture was any better than any other.

But I did also learn quickly that others didn’t necessarily share that same blissful innocence. As much as it clearly puzzled me when people expressed their contempt for my friend, it was certainly apparent to me that their contempt was very real. Even in Canada, where hatred was nowhere near as entrenched as it was further south, racism thrived.

I’ve also experienced it from the receiving side, twofold, one from the perspective of being Métis, in a culture where Natives are largely despised. In this situation, shame is taught implicitly, where it is intimated that a person should take refuge in their French last name, or resort to referring to their nationality as “mongrel” rather than identifying themselves as Métis. While I have since learned to be proud of my culture and now mourn not having been able to learn more of the traditions associated with it, it was still a painful experience hiding and pretending that nothing was amiss.

My other experience of bigotry came from being transgender. Even though it took me several decades to finally transition, the feelings were always there, and every crass joke that people made about men in dresses or every condemnation of “those perverts” served to drive me further into hiding, further into shame and further into the nightly suffocated struggle that almost culminated in suicide many times.

So if we learn so intimately how painful it is from the side of the victim, why is bigotry so easily foisted around in our own community?

Every so often, someone turns up the tune, “I’m Not a Fucking Drag Queen,” popularized by the movie, Better Than Chocolate. When I’d first heard it, the song was cute for about the first minute that it took before I started wondering exactly what was wrong about being a drag queen and why we should despise being associated with them. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with defining oneself and pointing out when assumptions made about transsexuals based on the behaviours of others are fallacious, but I fail to see why it needs to be done at someone else’s expense. And yet, there is an enormous rift between many of the transgender communities where this self-defining takes on darker overtones: transsexuals trying to differentiate themselves from crossdressers and drag performers, crossdressers who feel that people who would undergo surgery to change their bodies are extremists and delusional, drag performers who embrace being gay and who feel that their compatriots should just wise up and do the same… there’s an ongoing factionalism that in many communities continues to drive wedges between us.

It does not stop there. At the grassroots level, our communities often ostracize people because they choose to be non-operative (because it isn’t consistent with the “one true way” medical model), or because they have spent some time in the sex trade, or because they play in the leather community (even when they display a healthy differentiation between fantasy and reality, and are clearly transgender in the latter). FTMs and MTFs sometimes feel that they have too many different needs to belong in the same support groups, and intersex people often balk at any association at all with anything transgender, some of whom have never experienced dysphoria and might have been lucky enough to be assigned the right gender at birth. It’s not unusual to see homophobia rear its ugly head when debates flare up between those who work with the local GLB folks (I mean the ones who seriously try to be supportive, not proven nemeses like the Human Rights Commission a.k.a. HRC) and those who call anyone who does so a “traitor.…” And then there’s the support meetings I’ve sat through where people complain about or tell unflattering jokes about “Pakis.” Or the “drunken Indians” comments said with no care that someone in the room is Métis.

If one had any doubts:

“… Susan has said all along that she’s not like other transgender people. She feels uncomfortable even looking at some, ‘like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.’” – The St. Petersburg Times, about Susan
Stanton.

I’ll dispense with my take on Susan Stanton quickly. Although I object to her comments, I do see her as a creator of her own misery. Where she complains that “the transgender groups boo me,” and that her transition is a somewhat solitary one, this is a path that she carves for herself. When she had decided to become an activist, she failed to educate herself in the diversity of the community and the many needs it has, and in so doing she dropped the ball. By surrounding herself with people who are telling her that “Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,” she’s succumbed to their rhetoric, rather than giving serious thought to the matter. A neophyte to transadvocacy, she has no idea how thoroughly and deeply the history of betrayal from her friends, the HRC, runs. But she will find out, when the next betrayal comes along and leaves her hanging in the wind. And when that happens, I see no need for hard feelings enduring from her novice mistakes, provided she becomes willing to see and admit where she was wrong. From my perspective, the personal maligning ends there.

As much as her comment angers me, though, I think it’s important that the subject has been brought up, because this is not just about Susan Stanton. This attitude persists far beyond this one incident.

“… like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.”

This isn’t an altogether unusual complaint, in my experience. I’ve seen the aversion that people have to transwomen who’ve been harder-ravaged by testosterone, with heavy brows, deep voices, large statures, strong jawbones, recessive hairlines, wide shoulders…. “How can you be comfortable being seen in a store with her?” I’ve been asked. “I’d be terrified, and have to make myself as scarce as possible….”

Sorry folks, but not all of these things can be corrected with cosmetic surgery. And those things that can are often so costly that they become inaccessible to much of the community. We don’t all face the same challenges. For some of us, transition will be a lifelong process, and stealth is not a realistic objective. Should rights and protections then be only available to those who are “passable,” based on some unknown subjective scale? While conscientious and active advocates know better, I think our community would be surprised at some of the grassroots answers to that question. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on how often the “men in dresses” attitude is used as justification for shunning crossdressers, some of whom are transsexual at heart but held back by life circumstances (children, spouses, careers) and others of whom are dual-identified and need to alternately express both genders with the same intensity that we need to live one.

Please also understand that I don’t claim this bigotry to be endemic of the entire community, which can be an invaluable source of support and friendship. But it does exist in pockets, and where it does exist, it drives people away from the support they need, and likewise drives away those who would be happy (or at least willing) to provide it.

“’But I don’t blame the human rights groups from separating the transgender people from the protected groups. Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,’ Susan says. Transgender people need to be able to prove they’re still viable workers — especially in the mainstream.”

Until there is protection in place to occasionally discourage employers from firing workers just for being trans, it will continue to be a complicated and sometimes monumental task to carve a successful career, and will continue to happen only so long as a person can remain “passably” stealth and not draw attention… or cause the right-wing fearmongers out there to panic and pick up their torches. And as long as successful transgender people are not free to draw attention, no one will take notice of their accomplishments and associate them with transgender individuals, and this “proving” that is being touted will never take place. Is the world ready for a transgender city manager? In the rest of society, the answer to that would depend solely on personal job qualifications – apparently, we’re to be patronized into believing that we’re not ready for that, yet. And the wonderful thing about the Barney Frank trumpet-that-there-isn’t-enough-support-of-transgender-rights approach is that the louder and more frequent they get on the subject, the more they will convince the legislators who might have once voted for transgender rights.

There is a reason that society associates transgender people with “shemale” porn, bank robberies, unemployment and marginal lifestyles. If you’re not lucky enough to be deemed suitably “passable,” it can be difficult to secure the lowest of jobs – whatever the qualifications. With the difficulties sometimes just in landing a minimum wage job at McDonald’s, coupled with the costs of hormones and surgeries needed just to arrive at a point of peace with oneself, frankly, the sex trade is unfortunately one of the most viable solutions. This will not change until a signal – one with some legal clout – is sent out into the professional world that it is no longer acceptable to exclude transgender people from more viable career paths.

And the transgender community will not be helping itself in pushing forward for these kinds of needs as long as it is still wrapped up in exclusion, distaste and division, and creating environments in which advocacy continues to eat its own. Often, I’ve heard people trumpet that Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and others who threw the first stones that touched off the Stonewall Riots and the gay liberation movement were transgender, in protest of the gay community’s past history of excluding us from the bargaining table. And far too often, I’ve heard (sometimes in the same breath!) derision of drag artists, sex trade workers and anyone else deemed to create a “negative impression” of the transgender community. But at the time of Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson et al were drag queens and prostitutes. Sometimes, I think that the only thing that has changed since Stonewall is that gradually some of our community have managed to escape the ranks of the disenfranchised, and are trying to distance themselves from them. Once again, there is a repeat of the cycle of jettisoning the less fortunate – financially, physically or both – and some of us seem to have no qualms about doing to them what was done previously to us (and for exactly the same reasoning).

From time to time, it’s good to remember what inclusion really means, and embrace the consequences. As far as the move toward exclusion, I’ll have no part of it. I’d never let myself get that dirty.