NEWS

Transgender Canadians winning a few battles in the war for acceptance

05/22/2012 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Canada's transgender community, long plagued by discrimination and bureaucratic obstacles, is now celebrating a series of small but significant victories.

In an announcement made April 20, Montreal's Concordia University became only the second university in the country to allow transgender students to use their chosen name in class and on their ID.

There may also be advances in cross-border travel, which has been a complex and occasionally stressful experience for transgender persons.

Canada's airline screening regulations introduced last year made it considerably harder for transgender persons to board airplanes. Customs agents must now ensure that a passport picture matches a person's physical appearance, creating significant challenges for some.

"I've had some problems at the border," said Chase Ross, a Concordia student.

"When we got stopped at the border coming into Canada from the U.S. by bus, I explained that I was trans and showed them my prescription; they asked me very inappropriate questions but then apologized and let me go."

According to a recent report from Montreal's La Presse newspaper, however, Passport Canada is now examining the possibility of making passports genderless.

Gabrielle Bouchard would celebrate such a change.

"Why do we need a gender marker on a passport?" said Bouchard, co-ordinator at the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy in Montreal.

"It's not necessary for seating, the meal, or the bathroom. (Change is) a good idea in theory, but I'm still conflicted because of the potential for marginalization. How will customs agents deal with people who designate their gender as 'X'?"

But of all the barrier-blasting achievements by the transgender community here, none have drawn nearly as much attention as what Jenna Talackova accomplished.

The Vancouver-born beauty queen was given permission to compete in the Miss Universe Canada, held over the weekend in Toronto. She fell just outside the winner's circle Saturday night, when she was cut after making the Top 12.

Talackova was initially banned, "because she did not meet the requirements to compete despite having stated otherwise on her entry form," according to the competition website. But the Miss Universe organization, led by tycoon Donald Trump, overturned the ban, and called its decision fair and just.

While Talackova has a Canadian passport and driver's licence that identify her as a woman, others who have yet to undergo sex-reassignment surgery have a much harder time changing the gender on their birth certificate.

In a landmark decision by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario on April 11, it was deemed discriminatory to force people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery in order to change the birth certificate.

Despite these developments, and Canada's reputation as one of the world's most tolerant countries, provincial governments still lag behind some other jurisdictions when it comes to transgender rights. Australia's government, for example, started offering a third gender option on passports last year.

In British Columbia, for example, only one transgender health clinic serves the entire province.

"Our ... program, (which was) established to help people get through the system, find psychologists, get hormones, is way too underfunded," said Mary Little, chair of the Trans Alliance Society in Vancouver. "Their budget has only been increased by $15,000 or so in the past 10 years."

In Manitoba, the provincial government has made significant headway in the past three years, according to Chad Smith, executive director of the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg.

"There's a long waiting list for trans people to get diagnosed, either by a psychologist or psychiatrist," he said. This is a mandatory requirement for people seeking to get the sex-reassignment operation.

Like British Columbia, services in Manitoba are limited to the province's biggest city. Transgender people have to commute to Winnipeg in order to get essential services.

"Two doctors work at the government-funded Klinic Community Health Centre and offer services to trans people, but only on Fridays," Smith said.

Meanwhile, transphobia still permeates society.

"If employers decide you're not worthy of a fair chance, they won't hire you, it's as simple as that," said Micheline Montreuil, a transgender lawyer from Quebec City whose discrimination lawsuit against the National Bank made headlines more than a decade ago.

She won that case but lost another against the Canadian Army, which refused to hire her in 1999.

Years later, there is still some discomfort with gender issues at the federal level.

Bill C-279, a current NDP-sponsored bill aiming to eliminate discrimination against transgender people, was flagged as "vague" by Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay and dubbed by critics as the "bathroom bill" because of fear men would use the law to dress up as women and commit illicit acts in public restrooms.

Such talk angered and insulted Bouchard.

"It's very far from critical thinking," she said.

"It doesn't take into account trans men. People are asking for this bill because trans people are still dying (by committing suicide), still being fired from jobs because they're going through transition."

In Ontario, the Trans Lobby Group and its chair, Susan Gapka, are fighting for Bill 33, better known as Toby's Act, a private member's bill which had its second reading May 10. It passed with unanimous consent and has been sent for a committee review before its third and final vote.

It outlines amendments to Ontario's Human Rights Code, including adding gender identity and expression, which would render harassment and discrimination against transgender and transsexual people illegal.

"The (Human Rights Tribunal) ruling has given us hope," said Gapka. "Now we're focused on passing Toby's Act but it's like pushing an elephant up a mountain," she said, referring to Bill C-279's previous four incarnations as Bill C-389, which passed third reading last year but got hung up in the Senate when the federal election was called.

Even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, long known for his controversial comments against HIV funding and the gay community, made a surprise appearance at a flag-raising ceremony on Thursday to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

In Quebec, a newly created trans coalition made up of groups operating under the Quebec Council for Gays and Lesbians, is working towards making trans issues relevant to government officials.

"It's the first time that we've been at the same table, working cohesively as a group, talking about important issues and having someone at the government willing to listen to us," said Bouchard.

That government interlocutor is Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, who has shown a willingness to address challenges facing transgender people in Quebec.

"He is hugely open to trans realities and he wants to go forward with things that are important to us," Bouchard said.

With a dialogue finally established between transgender groups and the provincial government, Bouchard feels optimistic about the road ahead.

"I feel that we have a chance to go forward in a significant way (with) the government because of the openness they've shown so far," she said.

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