08/06/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 10/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Where's the Justice in Calling a Lesbian a Man?

Tomee Sojourner -- a Black, lesbian, management consultant with a clean-shaven hairdo -- has filed a complaint of judicial bias after she she was consistently referred to as a male throughout a Montreal Rental Board hearing. The importance of this case goes beyond its immediate legal issues.

Systems don't suddenly fail; either they're originally built to fail in a particular manner, or (more commonly) a total failure of a system is the result of multiple small, but unchecked failures that build up over years, decades, and sometimes even generations. The challenge is to be vigilant and willing to quickly intervene when the intermittent signs of systemic failure expose themselves. This is because before whole systems crash, there are always earlier signs signaling impending breakdown.

Enter the recent case of Ms. Tomee Sojourner.

On June 11, 2013, Ms. Sojourner -- a black, lesbian, management consultant with a clean-shaven hairdo -- appeared in a hearing before the Montreal Rental Board. Exercising her freedom to opt out of patriarchally gendered constructions of "appropriate" female attire, Sojourner appeared before the Rental Board wearing black dress-pants and a traditionally male suit jacket.

Sojourner, who does not identify as a transgender person, was bringing a case against her former landlord for toxic mold. She rightly took for granted that she would be given a fair and impartial hearing, and that she would be free to argue the merits of her complaint against her former landlord. She appropriately presumed that her inherent human dignity and equality would not even be an issue in this rather conventional landlord-tenant dispute. But it would not be so.

Instead the Rental Board judge, Mme. Luce De Palma reportedly chose to brazenly make the appalling decision to use her authority within this public forum of administrative justice to subject Ms. Sojourner to a humiliating experience that left her dignity in tatters.

From the outset of the hearing, judge De Palma defiantly insisted on dismissing Ms. Sojourner's humanity by incessantly using male nouns and pronouns ("mister," "him," "his") to refer to Ms. Sojourner. During this short but surreal hearing, judge De Palma was corrected (by both Sojourner and the opposing landlord's representative) at least 12 times for referring to Sojourner as a male. At one point, following yet another one of Sojourner's interventions, judge De Palma, even went so far as shrugging off the correction, saying something to the effect of "it's probably your hair...". Oblivious to the demeaning effect she was having on Sojourner' personhood and dignity, judge De Palma immediately returned to referring to Sojourner as a male throughout the hearing.

Well-versed in her rights, Sojourner is balking against any complex of helpless victimhood that could have easily been assumed in reaction to judge De Palma's conduct. She has retained the assistance of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) to file a complaint of judicial bias with the Conseil de la justice administrative (the Administrative Judicial Council) against the Rental Board judge, Mme. De Palma.

In addition to demanding a new, fair and impartial hearing with a different judge, Sojourner's complaint demands that judge De Palma receive mandatory anti-oppression training with particular focus on race, gender, class and intersectional discrimination in relation to these identity markers. Indeed, the legal implications of this complaint are bound to be precedent-setting. This is because unlike Ontario's Human Rights Code, neither the Quebec nor Canadian charters of rights and freedoms explicitly recognize gender identity or gender expression as a basis for discrimination.

That being said, the importance of this case goes beyond its immediate legal issues. When properly situated within its local and socio-political context, what begins to appear is a considerable problem that we as Canadians have given permission to fester for far too long.

Since the beginning of 2013, Quebec has seen a consistent line of scandals involving human rights-protected identity groups. For instance, there's #pastagate, #blackface, #quebecturbanban, the videotaped beating of Innu man, Norbert Mestenapeo by Quebec provincial police, and most recently, the Montreal amusement park, La Ronde, banning park attendees from bringing in kosher and halal food, despite the fact that such food cannot be bought at the amusement park.

When we add to Quebec's curious line of identity-related controversies, the shockingly public humiliation to which Ms. Sojourner was subjected by a publicly appointed decision-maker within the province of Quebec, only then is her degrading experience put in its appropriate context.

If within a collective system both the government and society repeatedly refuse to respect or sufficiently protect differences on the simple bases of ethnicity, race, religion, what then is to become of the Tomee Sojourners of us?

Within a social context like this, where do we find safety and freedom to be whole? What are we to do, we who are dehumanized, oppressed and discriminated against for the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which our socially constructed identities interlock, intersect and are simultaneously present? Where in such a society can we feel secure in our refusal to hide who we are for the comfort of others' insecurities and/or ignorance?

No, you may not be a black, lesbian woman or even black, a lesbian or a woman. And no, Sojourner's case is not about a single, isolated incidence of intolerance in Quebec. Rather, Sojourner's case represents the struggle for us all to receive fair and objective access to Quebec's judicial systems, and to enjoy the right live freely in the bodies and identities we're in -- to live and love as we are. That's what's really at stake.

It bears repeating: Systems don't suddenly fail; either they're originally built to fail in a particular manner, or more commonly, a total failure in a system is the result of multiple small but unchecked failures that build up over years, decades, and sometimes even generations.

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