After decades of activism, trans rights are starting to get the recognition they deserve. More than ever, trans people and their rights are being represented in the media and at the UN, our neighbours to the south just issued school guidelines that recognize the right to access bathrooms that correspond to gender identity, and on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, our federal government introduced a bill prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.
The gender identity and expression bill is long overdue, with similar bills having already been introduced seven times before. But what makes this a cause for celebration is that for the first time, it's the government who is tabling the bill. Unlike previous private members' bills, this one is much more likely to pass.
While all people are entitled to human rights protections, people with non-conforming gender identities and expressions (who may not fit into the socially constructed gender binary) are most at risk of heightened stigma, discrimination and violence.
Federal leadership is an important step towards ensuring that all people across the country are guaranteed their human rights.
In 2011, a nationwide survey found that more than three-quarters of transgender youth experienced verbal harassment in school and one in three reported physical violence. Earlier this month, a suspicious fire targeted the only medical clinic in Canada that offers gender reassignment surgery. And trans people of colour and trans sex workers are even more vulnerable to discrimination and violence.
Having trans rights enshrined in law means criminal acts motivated on the basis of gender identity or gender expression will be considered hate crimes, and that people who are employed by or receive services from the federal government, First Nations governments, or private companies regulated by the federal government (i.e. banks, trucking companies, broadcasters and telecommunications companies) will now be protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.
While a number of provinces have already added gender identity and expression as protected grounds from discrimination, this bill will fill some gaps. The provincial legislation offers protection for many trans people who face unfair treatment when it comes to housing, employment, contracts, health care, and education, to name a few. But not all provinces and territories guarantee the same protections. Federal leadership is an important step towards ensuring that all people across the country are guaranteed their human rights.
This bill would go a long way toward equal protections for all trans people across Canada, and could be a promising example to follow for provinces and territories who haven't yet adopted similar protections.
It is a strong first step, but when it comes to equality of rights, we're not quite there yet. The government still has some ways to go before trans people in Canada and people of diverse gender identities and expressions are truly able to exercise and claim their full range of human rights.
The needs of trans people and people with non-conforming gender identities and expressions are often marginalized or omitted altogether from the planning of laws, policies and programs. Ignoring these needs has meant ongoing barriers in accessing services without fear of stigma or discrimination or seeking legal recourse for rights violations. For one, many trans people in Canada are still required to demonstrate proof of gender confirmation surgery or other medical treatment in order to change their name and/or gender in official documentation. And a third gender marker is still missing from government forms, census and other types of data collection.
Extending protection from hate crimes to include gender identity and expression is vital but needs to be accompanied by better supports for trans people to access public services like health and judicial systems and investments in data collection to inform better policy.
And discrimination against trans people is interwoven into so many other policies and services that need to be addressed. Barrier-free access to health care and housing, trans-inclusive sex education, and the decriminalization of sex work would go a long way in supporting trans rights.
There are many steps the government still needs to take. These are but a few examples. Most importantly though, whatever laws, policies and programs come next, people of diverse gender identities and expressions, and allied organizations, have to be meaningfully and significantly engaged in their design, development and implementation.
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If someone tells you they are a “he”, a “she”, a “they” (which some genderqueer people opt for), use that pronoun. Some people might even refer to themselves as an “it”, but definitely avoid this unless a person has specifically asked. You do not decide a person's identity, they do, both because it’s their right and because they are the only people that can ever truly know. Respect their wishes without question.
If you really don't know, the best option is to just ask. Dancing around the subject can be irritating for a transgender person. Think of it like asking someone’s name: until you ask what it is, it’s fine for you to not know! If you’ve not had an opportunity to ask yet, “they” is a good general purpose pronoun to go for. Definitely don’t resort to “it”, “she-he”, “he-she” etc. as most people find these names horribly degrading.
When you're referring to things in the past, never say things like "when you were x gender", or "born a man/woman". Most transgender people feel like they have always been the gender they have come out to you as, but needed to come to terms with it in their own way. Instead refer to the past without referencing gender, for example, "last year", or "when you were a child".
Each person is different, so won’t want to talk about it at all, whereas some might enjoy the opportunity to discuss it. The worst thing you can do is be awkward about it; just ask them if they want to talk about it! At the same time, don’t ask questions that would be strange to ask a cis person. Transgender people and cis people should be treated the same – don’t start conversations about their bodies, for example, that wouldn't be normal to discuss with your cis friends.
Never call out a transgender person for behaviour which isn’t stereotypical for their identified gender, for example, if your trans-woman friend decides she doesn’t feel more comfortable in trousers sometimes. Gender identity is much more than just the things people do and the way they dress, but it’s not uncommon for transgender people to feel pressured into following stereotypes to “prove” themselves to their friends.
This one should be obvious, but never out someone unless they’ve made it clear they are openly transgender. It’s up to the individual to decide when they are comfortable coming out to people, and it is possible for them to be out to some people, but not others, so don’t assume that because they’ve come out to you there’s a free pass to tell everyone about it.
Although it is important you try your best to respect a person’s identity, you are only human – if you've known your friend a long time, you'll likely have a lot of habits to break, including a change of name, pronouns, etc. As long as you’re trying, transgender people normally don’t mind. Sometimes they might point out that you’ve messed up, and that’s fine. When they do, measure the tone of their voice: if they are annoyed about it, calmly say sorry and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But equally, if they seem happy, don’t make a massive deal of it.
A cross-dresser is just someone who dresses in clothes stereotypically associated with the opposite gender: cross-dressing does not imply anything about a person’s gender. Eddie Izzard, for example, is a straight cis male who loves his makeup and dresses. Don’t say a cross-dresser dresses in “women’s clothes” or “men’s clothes” – if a male likes to wear dresses that he owns, he’s wearing a man’s dress because they are his. And do not assume that a person's gender correlates with their sexuality - it doesn't.
Try to avoid the term 'transvestite' as no one knows what it means. Technically, it just means 'cross-dresser', but it has been misused for a while now. 'Sex' is what body you have whereas 'gender' refers to a person’s identity. Other than the fact it is fairly common for a person’s gender to match their sex ('cis'), the two things are otherwise completely unrelated. 'Genderqueer' is a broad term that covers people that don’t fit into the stereotypical gender binary – that may be because they don’t feel they have a gender at all, they feel that they fit into another, third, gender or that they flit between those options, making them 'genderfluid'. 'Transgender' is someone who identifies with a gender other than their birth-assigned sex. A 'Transsexual' is someone who has physically changed their sex.
If you see someone out in public and you can’t figure out what gender they are, just don’t worry about it! Definitely don’t have a loud conversation discussing what “they might be”, and absolutely don’t try to peek under their skirt or into their shirt to see what 'parts' they’ve got. Yes, some transgender people really do have to put up with that sort of thing.
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