03/21/2013 12:23 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

The Transgender Bill Is About Equality, Not Bathrooms

transgender hazard

Last night the House of Commons passed C-279, a bill that provides human rights protections to transgendered Canadians. Since its introduction over a year ago, critics have reduced it to the "Bathroom Bill," a distorted characterization of what is truly important domestic human rights legislation.

C-279 adds protections to the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) and the Criminal Code on the basis of 'gender identity', thus offering transgendered Canadians a clear and consistent remedy for the alarmingly high level of discrimination they experience. Indeed, the Ontario Human Rights Commission stated that these individuals are as "disadvantaged and disenfranchised" as any in our society.

This legislation not only carries great symbolic value, but would also produce three substantive and practical effects to help reduce the frequency of discrimination and violence against transgendered Canadians: first, the Canadian Human Rights Commission would begin keeping statistical account of such incidents; second, the Commission would start raising awareness of transgender issues through its communications; and third, public officials would receive briefings and training on the matter.


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Moreover, there is precedent for the use of the term 'gender identity' in Canadian provincial as well as international contexts, notably in the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which Canada signed in 2008, as well as in the internationally recognized Yogyakarta Principles.

To be clear, tribunals already do hear the cases of transgendered Canadians, but such claims must be tailored to fit the existing grounds of sex and disability. This makes legal proceedings more complex -- and thus more costly -- while only reinforcing the misconception that to be transgendered is to be disabled.

Such is the status quo that the vast majority of Conservatives prefer to maintain. They claim that C-279 is at best symbolic and at worst redundant and unnecessary given existing jurisprudence. They also believe it to be exceedingly vague, having spent much of the Parliamentary debate on the bill thus far warning of the potential for exploitation -- as if there exists some mass of men and women just waiting to commit criminal offences while masquerading as the opposite sex under the cover of this legislation. This is in itself frivolous fear-mongering.

And this relates back to the bathroom issue. Consider first that there currently is no law preventing a man from entering a women's public washroom or changing room, but that there are laws against sexual assault of any kind, anywhere. Then, as the bill's sponsor revealed, of the four jurisdictions in the United States that have had these protections for transgendered people in place for some time (California, Iowa, Colorado and Washington), all reported no instances of attempts to exploit them for illegal or illegitimate purposes.

However, not all Conservatives have resorted to such derogatory associations with respect to C-279; indeed, 18 of them in total, including four cabinet ministers, voted for the bill last night. This was largely the result of a compromise arranged by the bill's sponsor to remove 'gender expression' from the legislation and add a definition for 'gender identity' in order to ensure Conservative support. While I had hoped that both 'gender identity' and 'gender expression' could have remained in the bill, I appreciate the need for compromise and commend the sponsor (Randall Garrison of the NDP) for his hard work on this bill.

Now the legislation heads to the Senate for its consideration. I am hopeful, however, that during review by a Senate committee, the same spectacle observed on the House side does not repeat. Though it did not receive much attention at the time, a minority of Conservatives on the Justice Committee attempted to torpedo the aforementioned compromise, including through the extra-ordinary action of inviting an additional MP, who was not on the committee, to help bog down proceedings.

Nevertheless, the compromise still could have been implemented at committee, and one supportive Conservative member present helped advance this. Unfortunately, once the amendment to remove 'gender expression' had been approved, the Conservatives opposed to the bill engaged in a filibuster, forcing the legislation back to the House unamended -- for the time being. However, at Report Stage, in a rare turn of events, the Speaker of the House acknowledged this behaviour and ruled to permit the sponsor's amendments -- in essence, his compromise -- to be reconsidered by the full House of Commons, thus giving new life to the bill.

I am pleased that not only was the compromise supported, but that the bill itself passed. Moreover, I applaud the 18 Conservatives who voted in favour for their open-mindedness, though it is regrettable that so many others sought this bill's defeat, especially considering that it has been a long time coming. Indeed, similar legislation has been introduced seven times since 2005, including a nearly identical bill that was actually passed by the House in 2011, but then died on the Senate floor following the dissolution of Parliament that same year. Now I am hopeful that the Senate will pass this legislation, allowing us to finally enshrine these much-needed equality protections for transgendered Canadians into law.