“Maybe this was a mistake,” Morgane Oger says with a laugh, referring to her necklace.
It’s not about the jewelry itself — a simple pendant on a fine silvery chain — but rather the chain’s tiny clasp, which has become caught on her orange scarf. She manages to untangle it from the fabric, though not before tugging a single thread out of place and leaving a small ripple in the material.
“Now where were we?”
Oger, 49, is at a JJ Bean on Davie Street in the heart of Vancouver-False Creek, the riding she hopes to win in this May’s provincial election.
As her orange scarf suggests, she’s running for the BC NDP, a candidacy that made headlines when she won the party’s nomination last November because of Oger’s gender identity:
“BC NDP nominates transgender candidate Morgane Oger in Vancouver-False Creek”
“BC’s Morgane Oger first transgender woman to be nominated by major party”
“Transgender candidate Morgane Oger makes history in Vancouver-False Creek”
Now more than four months later, her campaign is well underway. Even while waiting in line for her cappuccino, Oger strikes up a conversation with the couple standing in front of her, introducing herself as a local candidate and asking about the issues that matter most to them.
It’s a role that appears to come naturally to her, but according to Oger it all still feels a little surreal.
“It’s very strange for me because I’m not a politician in my heart. I’m doing politician things, but in my heart I’m still an advocate,” she says.
Born in France, Oger moved to North America at age 10 when her father — a professor of neuroimmunology — took a position at the University of Chicago. It was there, in a racially diverse neighbourhood and at a public school that mixed students from lower-income areas with more privileged children like her, that Oger got “a big dose of social justice” that she carried with her when the family relocated to Vancouver five years later. She says it’s stayed with her in one form or another ever since.
Oger studied mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia, worked for years designing submarine and space robotics, then moved to Europe with her partner, settling in Switzerland and working as a freelance software engineer for financial institutions. In the late ’90s, she also became involved with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, setting up a server farm from her home in Switzerland and acting as webmaster for the group as it worked to distribute photographic and video evidence of abuse suffered by Afghan women.
In 2009, Oger and her family moved back to Vancouver. By now she was married and had two small children. There were a number of factors at play in the decision to move back — career options, a car accident, disadvantages that come with being a foreigner in Switzerland — but one of the biggest motivations for Oger was a long-held desire to transition.
“My gender identity was starting to leak. I was starting to have a really hard time with staying inside the suit,” she says. “Switzerland was not the best place to be if you were, say, ‘gender creative’ let’s call it.”
When Oger came out as transgender in 2013, she dove headlong into advocacy work, both for trans rights — she chairs the Trans Alliance Society, helped add protection for gender identity and gender expression to the BC Human Rights Code, and is now pushing the federal government to pass its trans-rights Bill C-16 — and in education. As the parent of two elementary school age children, Oger chaired the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, a body that oversees more than 50,000 students, until she stepped down to run for politics.
Only recently did Oger start to seriously consider provincial politics as an option. As an advocate she had always preferred the grassroots to the machine. She joined the BC NDP’s executive in 2015 because she wanted to see if the party would “put its money where its mouth is” on trans rights. It did, she says.
“As I become part of this establishment I realize it’s actually an incredible tool for social change, and having people in the ‘establishment’ who really actually represent the people that we govern [matters],” she says, half-interrupting the thought to admit it feels weird use the word “govern” in relation to herself.
But if Oger manages to unseat BC Liberal incumbent Sam Sullivan in False Creek, governing is exactly what she’ll have to do — potentially making history in the process as the first openly trans person in Canada to win an election for any level of government.
The significance of such a win is not lost on Oger.
“We need representation, we need diversity, and by having a trans lawmaker in power you will have one more person who understands what systemic discrimination and stigma are,” she says.
Oger’s campaign has had the feel of history being made since its very beginning.
Some have pointed out she’s the first transgender woman to run for a party with seats in BC’s legislature, while others argue she is the first trans person to be nominated by a major political party in Canada. (Running with the Ontario Libertarian Party in 2011, Christin Milloy was the first person in Canada to publicly identify as trans and run for office at the provincial level, and Jamie Lee Hamilton was the first openly trans person anywhere in Canada to seek public office when she ran for Vancouver city council in 1996.)
Since announcing her nomination, Oger has been joined on the campaign trail by three additional trans candidates seeking seats in the BC legislature — the Green Party’s Nicola Spurling (Coquitlam-Maillardville) and Veronica Greer (Surrey-Panorama), and the BC Liberals’ Stacey Piercey (Victoria-Swan Lake).
Hamilton says her campaign team decided to prepare voters early for a trans candidate, announcing her plan to run a full year before the 1996 municipal election.
“We developed a strategy that it should be introduced to the voting public on my terms and not by the media outing me,” she remembers. “We decided to announce a year ahead of time to give people an opportunity to get used to the idea because once the actual campaign rolled around I wanted to speak on the issues I’d always been speaking on. I didn’t want my gender identity to be the issue of the campaign.”
Hamilton says she was concerned about how people might react to her. Headlines from that time used the terms “transsexual” or “transgendered” to describe Hamilton, and she remembers participating in radio talk shows in which the hosts only wanted to focus on her gender identity.
“I think I was treated, personally, as a novelty. They were erasing part of who I was, which was an activist, a very well-known activist in the Downtown Eastside,” she says. “Some really wanted to sensationalize my life. So I was trying to balance the right of the public to know about me but also the serious issues happening in the city.”
Although Hamilton lost her run in 1996, she says she felt “generally well received” by constituents she met along the way. Hamilton ran for council again in 1999, then in the 2000 federal election (with the Green Party of Canada), and then in two unsuccessful bids for the Vancouver parks board in 2008 and 2011.
In the years since her first run for office, Hamilton thinks society has progressed, and she’s proud to see more transgender candidates running for office.
“I ran 20 years ago and I like to think that now it shouldn’t be an issue,” she says.
Nicola Spurling of the Green Party initially spoke to Xtra on the condition her name not be published. While she’s not ashamed of her gender identity, she says, it’s not something she wanted others to make a big deal about.
“I want to be focused on the issues and I know that when you introduce something like gender identity, which is still a big story in the news . . . that there’s the risk that it will overshadow the issues,” she told Xtra in late March.
This was before Global BC aired a news story outing Spurling as one of four trans candidates in this May’s election. In a subsequent Facebook post, Spurling noted the potential risks of outing trans people but attributed her inclusion in the story to a miscommunication between Global and the Greens’ communications department.
Her colleague, Veronica Greer, says campaigning openly as a trans person is difficult but “no more than being any other type of minority.” She has some concerns about potential transphobia on the campaign trail but believes that running will help bring gender identity and its attendant political issues to the forefront.
“Running brings it out into the open more. And that’s what’s needed,” she says, adding that while they may support different political parties she reacted positively to news of Oger’s nomination to the BC NDP. “Any person who paves the way like that, it takes immense courage.”
Leaving JJ Bean, Oger heads up the street to Emery Barnes Park where she’s meeting a dozen or so volunteers from her campaign. It’s April 2, 2017, the first truly sunny day of spring, and the sidewalks are bustling. Perfect for an afternoon of canvassing.
When Oger arrives, most of the volunteers are already there, some decked out in BC NDP T-shirts. Her campaign manager, Todd Hauptman, has set up a table at the south side of the park with orange balloons and promotional materials.
“We couldn’t have picked a better spot,” Hauptman says. And it’s true. Their display is situated under a cherry tree that has just come into bloom. As passersby stop to take photos of it, some also make their way to the table and peruse the election literature.
At one point, a Translink bus stops and the driver steps off to take a selfie with Oger.
In addition to the info booth, today’s activity is collecting signatures from people who feel something needs to be done about housing affordability in BC. After volunteers receive a brief tutorial on canvassing, they disperse in pairs to different parts of Yaletown. Oger and Hauptman are among those who stay at Emery Barnes Park, with its crowds of noisy children on the playground equipment and dog-walkers meandering along the paths.
The park itself is surrounded on all sides by tall condo towers — a perennial challenge of the downtown riding, where advertising with lawn signs is not an option. While landlords and strata corporations cannot prohibit tenants or owners from displaying election signs in their windows, there’s little uptake in the towers surrounding Emery Barnes Park, possibly due to an Election Act prohibition on election advertising signs within 100 meters of a building where voting is conducted.
That most constituents live in condo buildings also means door-knocking is impossible throughout most of the riding.
“People love her as soon as they meet her. The challenge is just to get her in front of people,” Hauptman says.
As the cherry blossoms drift through the air around Oger’s table, she approaches people on the sidewalk. She soon introduces herself to a couple who have stopped to take photos of the tree.
“Do you think housing is too expensive?” she asks them.
“Rental or real estate?”
“Either. Both,” she says. “Which is important to you?”
The couple seem friendly and engaged, although they ultimately decline to sign the BC NDP’s affordable housing petition. Later on she approaches a man sitting on a park bench but he shakes his head, refusing to even look at her.
Oger says despite her years of activism, she finds it hard to solicit support in person. And this has nothing to do with her gender identity. She doesn’t automatically assume someone has declined to sign a petition or chat with her because she’s transgender, although she admits that as a trans woman there is an elevated risk for her when approaching people on the street.
“But then again, it’s a sunny day, I’m under the pink cherry blossoms, I’m at a busy intersection, I’m at a busy park with a hundred people nearby. It is very low-risk here,” she says.
After receiving the party’s nomination last fall, Oger needed to collect 100 signatures from constituents, so she went door knocking in some of the neighbourhoods south of False Creek within her boundaries. Oger says that was the only time during the campaign she truly felt threatened, when she was greeted angrily at one of the homes she stopped by.
“He came out aggressively,” she says. “He was sweating and red in the face — and I stayed way out of his way. He came out six feet, I backed up eight feet, and there was a wall, so it was pretty scary.”
It had been a gloomy night in December and Oger was door-knocking by herself. She made it out of that situation shaken but unscathed, and says other women candidates later scolded her for going canvassing alone like that.
“I was really taken aback that this person exemplified the phenomenon that my life could be put at risk,” Oger says. “But I learned from that lesson . . . Rookie mistakes get made and that was my rookie mistake.”
Of course trolls aren’t new to Oger. As an openly trans activist, she has encountered her share of “poorly socialized people sitting in their underwear in their mothers’ basements” — and some scarier people as well.
“The people who talk about harming me, people who talk about my children. Really really scary,” she says. “When the [candidacy] happened, the nature of the troll changed. I immediately caught the interest of the leaders of the anti-trans movement. Specifically the TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] leaders. . . . I got a shower of anti-trans messages.”
Now Oger and members of her team simply mute the trolls who come after her on Twitter. She says she would much rather be meeting constituents.
As the afternoon wears on, Oger leaves the sidewalk and moves through the park, saying hello and striking up conversations.
“It’s very nice that she comes to the playground to actually meet people and talk to the families,” says Maija Wiik, who’s there with her grandchildren. “She probably knows that everybody’s in trouble. Everybody’s trying to make ends meet. It’s tough.”
Wiik says she was not aware that if elected Oger could be the first openly transgender person elected to public office in Canada.
“Kudos to her. But I think it really depends if she’s a good person and she has the values that many people do. It sounds like she will represent everybody, so kudos to her.”
Oger acknowledges that her campaign has required her to shift gears, to go from focusing predominantly on gender identity and human rights to showing that as an MLA she’d be there to represent the needs of everyone in her riding.
“It’s not lost on me how important it is that I get elected for my community, as a trans woman,” she says, taking care to point out she wouldn’t be where she is today if not for Jamie Lee Hamilton and other trans trailblazers who came before her.
She wants to be elected because of her education policy, her housing policy, her human rights advocacy.
“That’s much more important than the fact that I’m transgender,” she says. “Because that will mean a trans woman can get elected on the basis of her skills and her contribution to society rather than on the fact that she’s trans.”
As the canvassing event winds down, Oger thanks her volunteers for their support and takes a seat for the first time since leaving the coffee shop earlier that day. She almost seems tired, until a troupe of five-year-olds dressed as Disney princesses hurry past towards the playground, their parents not far behind.
“Now here’s an exercise in gender,” Oger says, animated once again.
The BC provincial election takes place on May 9, 2017.