6 min

A transformative win

Sitting down with Ottawa radio contest winner Serena Rivard

Serena Rivard won the New Normal, a contest run by Ottawa radio station Hot 89.9 which aimed to raise trans awareness. Credit: Adrienne Ascah

Ottawa’s Serena Rivard is walking away with $40,000.

When radio station Hot 89.9 announced the New Normal contest in September, it immediately sparked discussion. Aimed at increasing awareness of the challenges trans people face, the contest’s considerable cash prize garnered both interest and controversy. Rivard, who was chosen as the winner in October 2015, talks about the contest and being trans in this edited interview.

Daily Xtra: What has life been like since you won the Hot 89.9 contest?

Serena Rivard: Pretty much the same, really. It’s just now that I know I have certain freedoms that I could take advantage of something much quicker than I thought I was going to. I was in a very hectic position when the contest came to a close. I had to find a new place to live, I have to close on a house that I’m selling and I’m going through a divorce. There’s a whole bunch of stuff on the table. [Winning $40,000] makes certain things a little bit more accessible.

I’ve had a lot more people contact me in regard to trans issues and trans advocacy, so that’s the biggest positive of it all.

How did you initially feel about the contest and the contest being named the New Normal?

I will admit that I was a bit wary at first simply because the trans community often gets taken advantage of and it’s always in a negative connotation, like being the punch line of a joke or the criminal in a TV show. The name of it, the New Normal, was initially off-putting because it’s kind of shining a spotlight on why we’re different, but when they explained it in one of their interviews it made a lot of sense. 
[Jeff Mauler, a Hot 89.9 host, told Daily Xtra “Accepting everybody for who they are, that’s the New Normal.”]

As the contest went on I got more comfortable with it and [decided] it was something worthy of entering because they were treating [trans issues] really well.

What did you think of the argument that the contest unfairly had trans people competing for their health care?

I know where they’re coming from because it’s kind of a dangerous game. If you were made aware that you were a finalist and you’re at a really dark part of your life and you didn’t end up winning it could be very dangerous. It could lead to potential harm, potential suicide, so I understand that criticism. But, I’m hoping that what this contest did instead was to elevate the visibility of trans health care being dismal. I’m hoping people will jump on board as allies to change the system.

What has your experience with Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) been like?

Very, very limited. I applied. I called them up to make sure I was still in their queue. They told me that I was and that I was supposed to get a call by the end of this summer. That hasn’t happened and it’s been 21 months since my application has been received. So I’m still pending my first interview with them.

Have you decided if you’re going to wait for CAMH or proceed on your own?

Because the CAMH process [takes so long] I will proceed on my own. The thing about the contest was I didn’t want to put myself on display and it turned out you weren’t going to put yourself on display. I feel like with CAMH you put yourself on display to prove your trans-ness to a group of people who don’t know you and I think that’s just demeaning. I think that’s very degrading. If I could bypass that entirely, absolutely that’s what I want to do.

Talia Johnson, a trans activist, talks about how there’s an accepted trans narrative and that if you don’t fit into that narrative there’s a good chance you won’t get health care.

I think some of that has changed, but I’m not sure what they’re looking for when you go to the interview and that’s kind of scary. Getting denied is one of my nightmares. I woke up one time and I called my mom in tears and I was like I dreamt I was denied. It affected me greatly. To know that these people have that much control over how you could move on with your life is hard to take. It’s the process we have. It’s the process we’re trying to change.

Have you experienced discrimination or violence due to transphobia?

Not so much discrimination and the violence has been more verbal harassment, not anything physical. It was during the early stages of transition when you’re at your most vulnerable. You don’t exactly present the way you want to. People think there’s something off or something strange and from that you get the verbal [harassment] and it’s typically relating to sexuality and not gender, which is kind of strange. They’ll call you the f-word or a sissy. 

Discrimination hasn’t really happened because I transitioned at work and was accepted at work. My family’s accepted me. My friends have for the most part accepted me. Really I haven’t faced any of the discrimination that a lot of people do. I’ve helped out those who had, though, and it’s heartbreaking. You become like a mother figure to people you want to help, but you know you can’t help them because the system’s broken.

How involved are you with trans advocacy?

When I first came out I really got involved and then I crashed. It really took its toll on me seeing [how trans people were suffering]. Then I started rebuilding and giving presentations.

What was your reaction when you heard the mural honouring trans women of colour had been defaced?

I didn’t think our city had it in it to go and do something like that. If they’re targeting trans women of colour, the violence against them is so much greater than other trans people, so to see that being defaced was heartbreaking. They’re targeting a group of women who are marginalized their whole lives and to take away what’s basically a memorial to them made me angry and really sad.

Do you find there’s recognition of intersectionality within the trans community?

Privilege is a very polarizing subject. You’ll mention it to a white, cisgender man and he could either acknowledge it or go off on a rant. I believe it’s the same in the trans community. For some, we could definitely see that yes there is discrimination against the trans community, but disproportionately the violence and discrimination against trans women of colour is much greater than anyone else in the trans community. Not everyone sees it that way, but a lot of us are recognizing it more. We’re seeing a lot more online presence about what’s happening, but unfortunately the visibility isn’t the same for people who don’t follow the media that’s covering these issues.

There’s other privileges in the trans community, too. I really hate this “passing” term, but if I was to look at myself completely I would say I have passing privilege. There’s no one calling me out for being trans. Those who are visibly trans get a lot more street harassment. I don’t get that. 

Apart from transitioning, what issues facing the trans community would you like cis people to know more about?

Just basically to stop focusing on our transitions. We’re so much more than just what we used to be and where we are now. That’s just a small fraction of our lives and people transition all the time, whether they’re cis or trans. People transition from single to married, to motherhood, to fatherhood. There’s always transitions in everyone’s lives. This is just a fraction of our lives. It shouldn’t be the meaning of our lives.

There’s so many things facing the trans community. We have a lot of underemployment. We have a lot of homelessness in LGBT youth. We have a lot of housing discrimination. We have a lot of trouble accessing medical care. CAMH takes so long and it can take so long to just meet someone who will prescribe you your hormones. It’s a very long, arduous process. For some people, this is life and death. They’re at their breaking point and they’re waiting and waiting and waiting. Sadly, some do take their lives. The suicide rate in the trans community is quite high. Those are the things people need to think about instead of oh, what’s in your pants. Never mind how I look or how I used to look or what my old name was. That’s just superficial.