More than 50 protesters gathered silently in the snow outside New West Community Church on Sunday, March 5, 2017, to mark their opposition to Paul Dirks, the church’s lead pastor.
Dirks spearheaded a campaign against Bill C-16, the federal bill that would protect trans people from discrimination across Canada. Dirks’ campaign gained attention in January when anti-trans posters appeared in the Davie Village, but Dirks insists that his campaign is misunderstood.
“This is something that needs to be really clear about our campaign: we’re not saying that trans people are more of a risk; we’re saying that predators will take advantage,” Dirks tells Xtra. “My view is based on women’s rights campaigns and protections. There’s women both in my immediate family and my faith community who don’t feel that it’s safe to have no criteria around them when they are vulnerable or unclothed.”
Protesters say that’s a red herring.
“It’s something that people who object to extending trans rights trot out as a way of justifying their own bigotry,” Mary Ann Saunders says.
“When he talks about the discomfort of women, he’s not talking about all women, he’s talking about a small number of women. And he’s not taking into account the needs and comfort and rights of trans women.”
Saunders transitioned while a member of a church community, and says her church has always been a safe and welcoming environment, both during and after her transition. She wants people to know that Dirks’ way of understanding faith and Christianity is not the only way.
“It’s really important to counter misinformation and fear with factual information about the implications of Bill C-16 and about whose lives are actually in danger,” she says. “We know that it’s trans people that are more in danger than anyone Pastor Dirks is talking about.”
Protester Hazel Plante is concerned about the apparent disconnect between Dirks’ words and his campaign.
“He says things like, ‘I love trans people,’ and then I see the actions and it’s clearly designed to make trans women look like predators,” Plante says.
“I think it's really important to protect trans rights, and to make attacking someone who is trans a hate crime. Seems pretty fundamental and obvious to me,” she says.
“If you want us to be a part of society, then we need to be able to use the washroom,” she continues. “It’s really not about the washroom at all. It's about what spaces can we enter? Where can I be a fully functional human being?”
Dirks allotted an hour to meet with protesters and create a dialogue before his sermon. Though some protesters engaged, many turned their back on him and refused to interact, instead chanting, “Love thy neighbour.”
“I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel like he’s created a safe space,” explained one of the protest organizers, Lorne Gill. “I don’t want to dialogue with Paul, I don’t feel like it’s helpful or productive. We’re just here to voice our dissent against him.”
“We had some fears around not wanting to give him more air time,” adds Gill, who says he joined the protest as both a trans man and a Christian, after reading about Dirks.
“I just think this gives a really negative connotation to Christianity and religion,” he says of Dirks’ campaign. “There’s just no place for this.”
Dirks maintains that he loves everyone, including trans people, and that his church “welcomes anyone who wants to worship Jesus.”
In a crowd made up predominantly of trans people and their families, many protesters expressed fear that Bill C-16 might not pass in Parliament. The bill is now headed to the legal affairs committee for review, having finally passed its second reading in the Senate on March 2.
“As a transgender woman who came out later in life, I don’t want the younger generation to have to go through this hatred, this violence and dissociation from society,” says Candace Boer, who attended the protest with her husband. “I’m not hiding anymore, and I’m not going to let anyone else push me back in.”
“That’s all I’m asking — just to live like any other normal person. I don’t want to be someone that’s considered less human.”
Editor’s note, March 9, 2017: An earlier version of this article misspelled Lorne Gill’s name.