At the Vancouver Trans March, 2018. Credit: Angelika Kagan/Xtra; juliaart/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Still Fighting: LGBTQ2 Rights at 50
9 min

A millennial and senior trans activist discuss the future of trans advocacy in Canada

Rupert Raj and Tatiana Ferguson talk community organization, early and late-life transition

For decades, trans folks have been overlooked within LGBTQ2 communities. While gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer Canadians’ causes continue to make advancements — from human rights protections to same-sex marriage — trans communities still face systemic oppression and discrimination. Despite the fact that hate crimes against trans people are still on the rise, no one is tracking their occurences in Canada. And even though trans and gender non-conforming people have historically played a major role in gay and lesbian liberation, the same support has not always been afforded to trans communities in return.

Only in recent years have trans Canadians won legal and political battles for their safety, livelihood and protection. In 2016, gender identity and gender expression were enshrined in the Canadian Human Rights Code, protecting trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming folks from discrimination on the basis of their identity. Trans folks can also now have their birth certificates and other identifying, government-issued documents updated to reflect their gender identity.

And communities battled for better visibility: in 2009, the Trans March took place in Toronto, the first of many to bring awareness to shared issues and identities. Still, much work remains to be done, and trans communities continue to fight for freedom from bigotry and oppression.

Xtra’s Kai Cheng Thom sat down with Toronto’s Tatiana Ferguson — a millennial and project coordinator and community-based researcher at METRAC Action on Violence — and Vancouver’s Rupert Raj — a former psychotherapist involved in trans activism since 1971 — to talk about past Canadian trans activism and its future.

Kai Cheng Thom: This is an intergenerational panel, which is super interesting and valuable. Trans spaces and events are, at least in my experience, usually pretty age-specific and quite focused on youth — although, of course, in some other communities the opposite is true. So my first question for the two of you is: do you think there is a generational gap between younger and older trans folks in terms of need, politics, cultures or anything else?

Rupert Raj: I would say yes and no. It’s important to have dedicated spaces for younger and older trans people respectively — which we do, because most of the groups have a youth or older focus. But we lose out on meaningful opportunities to learn from and support each other when we’re so siloed.

There has been some recent trans-generational work — especially in Toronto. At The 519 LGBTQ conference on aging in Toronto in 2014, I helped organize an interactive workshop around Black and brown trans and queer elders and youth working together. And there’s some Supporting Our Youth (SOY) programs where older trans people are recruited as mentors for trans or gender nonconforming youth.

Tatiana Ferguson: I think it’s in response to this gap that there are so many mentorship programs taking place now. I’d say over the past two years there’s been more of a push to bridge the older community together with the younger community.

But some trans folks may transition later in life. And then there are a lot of trans folks and non-binary folks and gender-fluid folks who are transitioning or initiating the process of altering their gender identity and gender expression pre-puberty. It makes it challenging when it comes to mentorship, because a person who transitioned, or who started to live as their authentic self, from the age of 12 would already have eight years experience [living as a trans person], versus a person who’s 60 and decides to transition a year or two prior.

Thom: It’s like your age in trans years differs from your age in regular years!

Ferguson: Yeah! There’s also the outlook in terms of identity politics. At least in my experience — I’m still considered a youth, under 30 — when I’m talking to a lot of the older trans folks, they’re very adamant and more opposed to the fluidity of gender and a bit more heternormative. I think it’s because they fought so hard to have their identities made visible and affirmed, and they experienced more violence given the era that they grew up in and how they were raised.

Raj: And the needs of younger people and older people can be very different. For example, with young people, they have to relate to their parents, siblings, school teachers; they might possibly experience bullying by peers; and they’re looking for work and higher education. And for older people, they have to relate to their partners, children, grandchildren, employers, even; and they have aging issues and maybe end-of-life decisions to make as well.

Here in Vancouver, we have the BC FTM Network. It started in 1991 and it’s still going, but it’s not age-specific. For people that are not really young or not really old — people in their 30s and 40s — they end up going to other, more generic, groups, where they sometimes get their needs met and sometimes they don’t.

Thom: In my journey through community, I’ve heard from a lot of trans elders (or people who are older but may not yet identify as elders) that the younger generation isn’t always as appreciative of past struggles and may take certain freedoms for granted today. I’ve also heard older friends express fear of engaging with younger activists because of not having all the “right social justice language.”

Ferguson: Language is ever-changing. I’m originally from the Bahamas, where we don’t have a sex education curriculum. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not things I was taught in my developmental years. I’m still always learning. And even younger folks sometimes struggle with this. For younger trans folks who may view their identity in a way that is different from others, it’s a challenge to figure out how to unite our voices.

Thom: So what can we do to build stronger, intergenerational political relationships within trans communities?

Raj: One time I wanted to talk to a trans youth group whose members were between 16 and 29, and they didn’t want anyone over 30 to come in as a guest speaker. So that kind of thing is a little problematic. While we can preserve those age spaces, I think we have to allow opportunities for people of all ages to occasionally engage with those age-specific groups.

A while back, my colleague King and I tried desperately to get an LGBTQ2 trans and intergenerational network going in Toronto. We had several meetings with several organizations, and we were really planning to go ahead with it. But I got burnt out and had to go on medical leave for three months, and then King got burnt out and had to go on leave, and nobody else would step up to the plate to carry on the co-chairing of those meetings while we were indisposed. And this seems to be an ongoing problem — there doesn’t seem to be sustainability.

Ferguson: I’ve been hearing about trans mentorship a lot lately, and I often question it. I started my transition about 10 years ago. A lot of folks look up to me as a mentor and I find that position difficult — there’s a lot riding on me to be exemplary. It puts a lot of power in the mentor’s hands.

Within the Black community, we have chosen families. I’d much rather be like a sister to other trans folks — a sister can be herself. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but things work.

Raj: I’ve gone out of my way in the past to mentor young and old trans folks — especially in positions where I knew they might be more likely to get a job because they trained with me beforehand. I know some people, whether younger or older, feel a bit nervous taking on these leadership roles if they don’t have a chance to do some mentoring and some bridging with someone who’s already doing it — that gives them more confidence and some experience, and it can be effective if there is trust and respect between the individuals working together.

But I also think we need to look at mentor successor programs formally and informally, because this has always been a problem. People burn out and then there’s no one there to pick it up — they’re either willing but not able, or they’re able but not willing.

Ferguson: And I think there are a lot of systemic factors that are impeding trans folks’ meaningful involvement [in community organizations]. What I’m hearing from community leaders from organizations now is that they want to have a diverse team, but they’ve done nothing to integrate, say, accessible washrooms or inclusive forms, or even adjust how staff are trained.

Thom: Rupert, you touched on the fact that there’s a big gap in programming after the 29-year-old cut-off. Suddenly all the youth funding melts away and we have trans folks in their 30s or older whose needs are being neglected or rendered invisible. So I wonder if you could dive a bit deeper into this — what are some issues concerning folks who are middle- and older-aged?

Raj: For middle-aged people, activists could be advocating for more healthcare, legal, social, religious and spiritual resources. There’s a great need for peer supports in instances of potential gender transitioning for those who have not yet transitioned, especially when it comes to employers and human rights in the workforce.

For elders, activists might work on advocating for more resources and peer support for potential later-life transitions, and what that transition might look like in relation to partners, children and grandchildren. And then, of course, there are aging and end-of-life issues that affect all older folks.

Ferguson: And while there has been a lot of work on HIV/AIDS and aging, I don’t think there’s been enough focus on aging as a trans person. There definitely needs to be more funding for this specifically.

Raj: I think what needs to be done — although it’s not always easy — is to get more trans, Two-Spirit and intersex people on advisory boards and boards of directors [of community organizations], because managers are responsible to them, and there’s some accountability there. A lot of the time, managers make decisions that go against the needs of the community members, or don’t advocate for better funding for trans issues. Not every trans or intersex or Two-Spirit person can become a frontline staff worker [to address those community-level concerns]. So we need to create more of those opportunities for trans folks to get in so they can fight for resources that are so needed.

The other part is that we need greater access to higher employment. In an Ontario Public Health Association report I worked on, we recommended that the province work to create ways for financial access to higher education for trans folks, because unless you have a master’s degree, you can’t work as a therapist or social worker on the frontlines.

Ferguson: I think you’re right, Rupert. I think it’s about time the government, as well as all of these organizations who claim to be so committed to support trans folks, dedicate funding to establish an organization that can work specifically for the needs of trans folks. What I’ve heard from folks in the community and on the frontlines is that a lot of resources for trans people are short-lived — it’s like a Band-Aid to a wound. And while you can provide an opportunity to create employment for six months or a year, once that funding dwindles, what are folks supposed to do?

Thom: And that’s where that mentorship piece that Rupert mentioned might come in: if you don’t have the full skillset or you don’t have the expertise, there may be other, more informal ways of getting people who want to be responsibly working in the public.

On a final note, do you have questions for one another?

Ferguson: Yes! Rupert, given your history and your extensive knowledge both professionally and personally, what’s the biggest change you’ve observed in the trans community over the years?

Raj: There have been more than one! I think cisgender queer allies are stepping up to the plate more than ever. Family members are stepping up, too — there’s a lot of parent-led groups now that support trans youth.

The media also seems to be changing, improving the use of language around trans identities and communities. And nursing schools have really improved, becoming better allies to trans folks.

There are still others that haven’t quite gotten there, though. We still have far right-wing folks who affect the impact politicians have on government decisions like public funding and access to resources. I think of Laura Lynn Tyler Thompson in Burnaby, BC, with the People’s Party of Canada who ran on an anti-SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] platform.

For you, Tatiana, I’m wondering what you think the future looks like for Black and Indigenous trans activists and trans activists of colour in Canada. There has been so much great work, especially in terms of creating leadership opportunities and taking on leadership roles in our community. What’s next?

Ferguson: While trans women of colour are disproportionately affected by violence, I think we’re seeing more trans women in a positive light. In terms of what the future entails: trans women have always been at the forefront of the gay liberation, and now we’re fighting our own fight and we’re supporting each other. We’re fighting oppression, and we’re fighting the intersection of multiple oppressions — racism, misogyny, transphobia.

For a lot of people of colour, being trans has been seen as a white thing. Now our own communities are learning about the intersection of gender identity and sexual orientation. We have this thing called the “three strikes rule” — you have three strikes and you’re out. So if you’re Black and you’re a man, you’re already set for a hard life. But if you’re a Black woman who’s queer, you’re at three strikes, and life becomes even more difficult.

I see my role as supporting young trans folks who are being told, no you cannot be this or that, because you’re already experiencing racism and other oppressions. I’m supporting other young Black folks in knowing that you can be yourself and be successful.

Answers have been edited for clarity.