Next month, in April, an extremely pivotal bill is going to be up for debate in the Canadian parliament. It’s Bill C-279, which will add gender identity and gender expression to the list of statuses protected under the Canadian Human Rights Code, and amend the pertinent sections of the Criminal Code in regards to anti-transgender violence, assault, and harassment.
Currently, transgender Canadians have no such protections, and may be discriminated against on the basis of their gender by employers, businesses, shelters, institutions (public or private) and individuals without any legal consequence. Effectively, I can be turned down for a job, barred from entering a restaurant, denied admittance to a shelter or hostel, or forced to comply with male dress-codes at public institutions without my having any recourse. If I am harassed, assaulted or murdered on the basis of my being trans, this does nto qualify as a hate crime. I am in the position of having to depend simply on the mercies of a legally empowered majority to choose not to exercise their right to openly discriminate against me.
This is not okay.
I find myself increasingly frustrated by the amount of energy the LGBTQ rights movement expends on issues such as marriage, adoption or DADT. It seems like a rather explicitly classist mentality to prioritize the ability of those already comfortably situated as full participants in society to pursue middle-class, nuclear family privileges while others do not yet even have the basic level of protections required to be able to seek employment, or at least receive assistance from institutions like emergency shelters. While we celebrate the ability of gay and lesbian Canadians to marry one another, transgender Canadians are forced into homelessness or survival sex work because they do not have the assurance that they won’t be laughed out of a job interview simply for being something other than binary and cisgender, and do not even have the assurance of being able to seek income assistance without their identity being denigrated, mocked, invalidated, and exposing themselves to the risk of public or personal humiliation.
How many trans people (including myself) have been openly and loudly misgendered at the welfare office? How many trans women have been kicked out of women’s shelters on the basis of being “really men” and forced to humiliate themselves and risk violence or sexual assault trying to be accommodated by men’s shelters? How many have been turned away from food banks on the basis that they don’t have “proper” identification? How many of us, exposed to this bigotry, humiliation, invalidation and risk simply stop trying to seek work or assistance, and end up falling between the cracks of the system, all because nobody can even be bothered to acknowledge this crucial gap in Canadian human rights law? And what good are marriage or adoption rights when you don’t even the basic necessities to take care of yourself, let alone a family?
Bill C-279 has received virtually no media attention whatsoever. A considerable majority of my friends here in Canada, most of whom likely consider themselves allies of the trans community and supporters of our rights, have never even heard of this bill. A considerable majority of Canadians have absolutely no idea that trans people are NOT protected from direct discrimination. And when cis Canadians are informed of this problem, they often act momentarily appalled, only to completely forget about the issue a couple hours later, and file it back under “somebody else’s problem”. In complete honesty, I’d like to ask any cis Canadians reading this: Did you even know about Bill C-279 before now? If you did know of it, did you remember its name, and know that it is being debated in a couple weeks? Did you know that transgender Canadians can legally be turned down for employment or shelter simply on the basis of their gender identity or gender expression? Were you even aware there was a problem? Have you ever seen this discussed on the news? Did you know this was an issue during the last election, and that the original bill (that would have passed, prior to the Tories claiming a majority through their rigged election) had been killed by the dissolution of the previous parliament? Have you done anything about this?
This bill has been ignored. And if it continues to be ignored, it will not pass. Please try not to read that in a Gandalf voice. I’m trying to be serious (yes, it’s very difficult). Stephen Harper believes he has a mandate to allow the majority of Canadians, the most privileged and comfortably situated Canadians, to speak for all of us. Democracy cannot be a majority deciding on the rights of a minority. Were that the case, there would never been any civil rights progress at all. And trans people are absolutely a small minority. The only way we have ANY chance of achieving this basic and fundamental level of protection, being treated as fully equal members of our society, is by TALKING ABOUT IT. We need this to be heard. It needs to be understood by the Canadian people our parliament claims to represent that there is an entire class of Canadians who do not presently have legal protections for their basic, inalienable human rights. It needs to be understood by the Canadian people that we currently live in a nation where overt, institutionalized discrimination is still tolerated.
I have long believed that a culture, society or nation is judged not by the affluence of its most privileged, but by how it takes care of its most vulnerable. What does it say about our nation that there are still a class of human beings who can be openly hated, ridiculed and denied their rights on the basis of an unchosen, innate, harmless condition of their identity? What does it say about us that we choose to allow our most vulnerable to be kicked to the curb, and we choose to ignore it, choose not to even speak about it? Choose to allow bigotry and discrimination fall beneath the threshhold of our notice? Choose complacency in the denial of Canadians’ human rights?
But more than an abstracted, ethical, socio-political issue, this is an issue that affects individuals. Actual living, breathing, human beings who only wish to be treated with a basic level of respect, tolerance and decency, who only wish to be accepted as participants in human society. As was said by a friend of mine at a Transgender Day Of Remembrance rally at Berri Square in Montreal, we aren’t seeking any special rights or considerations. Most of us simply want to get jobs, pay taxes, perhaps have families, participate in public life, and just live our lives. When equal rights for trans Canadians are denied, it is not simply an issue of law, or an issue of our abstract, theoretical notions of gender. It isn’t about what is or isn’t a man or woman, or how far we should extend human rights law, or about urban Canada vs. rural Canada, progressive Canada vs. conservative Canada, secular Canada vs. Christian Canada, or social justice vs. “family values”. It is about what happens to actual human beings. Human beings whose rights are being denied, identities being invalidated, ability to participate in our society being hopelessly compromised, ability to live without fear of assault or harassment being taken away, and pursuit of simplest forms of happiness, fulfillment and life’s rewards being rendered untenable, impossible. Real living, breathing Canadians being denied their chance at anything resembling a full, rewarding and safe life by the complacency of an uninformed public.
Real living, breathing Canadians like my friend Sonya. She can’t find work because her identification doesn’t match her presented gender. Her identification doesn’t match her presented gender because she has not yet had lower surgery, required to obtain an updated gender marker on one’s birth certificate. She hasn’t yet had lower surgery because she can’t afford to see a psychiatrist for her required assessment and approval. She can’t afford to see a psychiatrist because she does not have work, and lives on the pittance offered by Quebec’s income assistance. Do you see the problem here? And this is to say nothing of those transgender Canadians who don’t even wish to undergo SRS.
Or real living, breathing Canadians like my friends Catherine and Emily, who have to work tirelessly to sustain struggling independently owned businesses in order to scrape by because nobody will hire them. Or my other friend named Emily who despite her staggering and beautiful intelligence has had her bright academic future derailed by the negative preconceptions that exist even amongst the educated towards those who don’t quite fit into our expectations about gender. Where once she would have been assured an eventual tenure-tracked position, her future now hangs in anxious uncertainty, and her ability to earn (deserved) respect from her peers has been hamstringed by the potential to see her as a “tranny” first, and gifted thinker second. Or real Canadians like Kaitlyn Borgas, once a prominent and rising star chef in the upper class Vancouver restaurant circuit, forced into unemployment and poverty, her once weighted name dragged through the mud and now attended by derisive, snide giggling and hateful gossip, subjected to insensitive and insulting newspaper columns, ending up sending out scores of resumes to jobs for which she was grossly overqualified, only to not even be called in for an interview, as her family struggled to survive. Real Canadians like Saige, a woman I knew from the Vancouver trans community who ended up taking her own life last year due to simply being unable to cope living in such a hostile environment. Real Canadians like Shelby Tracy Tom, murdered in the Downtown Eastside after needing to turn to sex work to survive. Real Canadians like Kimberly Nixon, rejected from her position at Vancouver Rape Relief for being transsexual and therefore not a “real” woman and not able to “understand” the experiences of other women who had experienced rape or sexual assault. Her case against Vancouver Rape Relief was won in a case heard by the human commission , but overturned in appeal, on the grounds that although Vancouver Rape Relief did not dispute rejecting her on the basis of being trans, they were perfectly entitled under the law to do so.
And countless other cases of direct, overt discrimination against Canadians, with real, lasting consequences, all being enabled and approved by the law. A law in our country saying “yes, you are allowed to discriminate against this class of human beings. Go ahead. You have our blessing.”
And real Canadians like myself.
Hello! I’m Natalie! I’m a transgender Canadian. I was born in Victoria and raised in Chester, Nova Scotia. I’m 27, and live in East Vancouver, and enjoy linguistics, feminism, neurobiology, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, poetry, comics, fashion, post-punk, goth and shoegaze rock music, “experimental” literature and contemporary art. I have a mom named Susan in England, and a dad named Alex in Montreal. I have two brothers in Alaska and North Carolina. I like to go to skeptic-related events, and have a bunch of friends here in Vancouver through the skeptic and trans communities, respectively. I love Thai and Indian food, studied poetry at the Evergreen State College, and I really love dogs. And bats. And sloths. And otters. My favourite books are Don Quixote and The Unconsoled. My favourite band is The Velvet Underground. My favourite poets are Paul Celan and Robin Blaser. I have a stuffed Totoro on my dresser.
I am unemployed, and live on income assistance. I have been unemployed for a very very long time. I scrape by with assistance from food banks (all of which require submitting to leering stares in the crowded line-ups, submitting identification that says “M”, ticking the box on their form that says the same, signing those forms with my birth name, etc.). After enough incidences of not even being considered for a job interview after employers noticed that little “M”, eventually I stopped feeling it was even worth bothering. It is only through an extremely unlikely series of fortunate coincidences that I now find myself writing for a blog network that pays me in return for my work, that this pay does not exceed my “earned income” credit under my “persons with persistent multiple barriers” status at the Ministry Of Housing And Social Development (earned by submitting to the classification of myself as suffering from Gender Identity Disorder- having to bend the truth and claim this was a barrier in terms of its effects on my mental health, despite the fact that I am now happier and healthier than I have ever been, rather than that it is a barrier in terms of the discrimination I face in the hiring process), and am moving into a cheaper apartment, the combined effect of which will finally allow me to make ends meet (though not end my reliance on food banks).
Bill C-279 would have direct benefits for my life. It would make things immensely easier for me, to finally know that I am supported and recognized by my government, that they acknowledge my gender and that I deserve equal protection under the law. It would not stop the current of bigotry against which I need to constantly swim upriver just to survive, to hold on to hope, to maintain my confidence and sense of empowerment in a world that at all times assails me with the message that I should be ashamed for being the disgusting, sinful, abomination and joke that I am… but it would significantly slow it, and at least remove the tacit approval of that dehumanization by our democracy. It would not end transphobia and cissexism, but it would at least send a message that such bigotry is not condoned and blessed by our nation’s representatives, laws and ideals.
This bill is not an ethical abstract. It is something through which we can directly, concretely work towards ending the appallingly inhumane treatment of transgender people in this country. Real Canadians, like Sonya, Catherine, the Emilies, Kaitlyn, Saige, Shelby, Kimberly and myself.
But it will not pass if people don’t know. As long as it’s considered simply a theory, and the various MPs who will make the decisions, and the voters in their ridings, can view trans Canadians as simply some kind of faceless abstract, as long as they’re able to ignore the real human consequences, affecting real human beings, as long as it’s ignored, or discussed quietly and silently behind closed doors, as long it is goes completely unmentioned by the media, it will not pass. Our lives will continue on in needless difficulty. Our rights will continue being denied. Members of our community will continue to give up, continue to be pushed out on the streets, continue to be laughed out of job interviews, continue to be forced into sex work, continue to turn to addiction as the only possible comfort, continue to fall through the cracks of our system, continue to die. Our government will continue to approve. And they will do this on behalf of a complacent public. A public who are happy to ignore that their friends, daughters, sons, children, sisters, brothers, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, mothers, fathers, parents, co-workers, roommates and fellow Canadians are suffering and being denied equal rights. A public who will allow people to die, and choose not to act.
We cannot, must not, let this happen. If we do not do everything we can to let this be heard, let it be talked about, and let people understand that Canadians are being denied their human rights, then we are a part of it. We have participated in it. We have let down the vulnerable in our country, and we have let down the ideals on which this country was built.
We owe it not only to trans people to ensure that this law passes, but we owe it to the principles of a free and democratic society. We cannot and must not be complacent in overt, institutionalized discrimination, bigotry and the consequential suffering, violence and death. It is our responsibility, and the time to stand up and say that transgender Canadians, all Canadians, deserve equal rights and protection from bigotry is now.
If we fail in this, we do not deserve to call ourselves a democratic nation.
At the very least, should this bill be blocked by Harper and his Conservative “mandate”, our nation should be made aware that his party opposes the principle of universal, inalienable rights. That they have directly and knowingly stood on the side of bigotry and intolerance, and said it is acceptable to deny a class of Canadian citizens their status as equal under the law.
So please, share. Talk. Shout. Make this known.
Suggested actions include writing your MP, especially if he or she is a moderate or socially-progressive Conservative. You can also sign this petition or start a new one of your own. I’d also STRONGLY recommend contacting your local media to inform them of this story, ask if they were aware of it, and if so ask why they haven’t covered it. Make Facebook statuses and tweets. Do whatever you can to get people informed and talking.