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Egale tackles trans rights

But tactics used for queer gains might not fly

FIGHTING FOR TRANS RIGHTS. MP Bill Siksay told an Egale forum he would keep fighting in the new Parliament. Credit: Shawn Scallen

As Egale Canada launches its new Trans Protection Campaign, some trans folk are questioning the campaign’s focus on lobbying and legislation.

“I know so many trans women who have so many substantive problems in their life because they are trans,” said trans celeb Nina Arsenault at a Feb 12 forum on trans rights hosted by Egale. “They don’t even know that the human rights of trans people are not explicitly protected under Canadian law, and when they hear words like ‘legislation’ and ‘health needs assessment,’ their brains turn off because they don’t have the privilege of the education needed to take part in fighting for their rights legally.”

Other attendees pointed to the futility of focussing on changing policy that won’t have a tangible impact on the lives of trans people because of other existing barriers.

“It’s not enough to relist sexual reassignment surgery if there are no physicians who can perform the surgery,” said attendee Matt Francino, referring to the Ontario Human Rights Commission case based on OHIP’s delisting of sexual reassignment surgery. “There is a lack of awareness about bringing cost and waiting times down while we are waiting for legislation.”

The human rights commission issued an interim ruling in November that the government had to pay for sexual reassignment surgery for three transsexuals who were stranded in mid-process when the procedure was delisted in 1998. The ruling did not require the government to relist the procedure.

The forum, held Feb 12 at the University Of Toronto, attracted more than 100 people. Guest speakers for the evening were Barbara Hall, the new chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Comission, NPD MP Bill Siksay and Laurie Arron, the director of advocacy for Egale Canada. Jessica Friedman, co-chair of Egale’s trans issues committee, moderated the event.

“Few groups in our society are discriminated against as much as trans people…. Trans people continue to experience discrimination and harassment in most aspects of their everyday lives,” said Hall, who spoke extensively on the commission’s role in the fight for trans rights, including policy development and public education.

Speakers identified issues including discrimination and harassment of trans people in the workplace and in gender-segregated institutions like prisons, hospitals and shelters. Currently trans people are not explicitly protected from discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), although gender identity is considered to be covered under both the sex and disability categories in the CHRA. Hall says the Ontario Human Rights Commission supports amending the CHRA to address this problem.

The scope of protection for trans individuals under the sex and disability categories in the CHRA is unclear, argued Arron. “Trans people need explicit protection with a broad scope.”

“There is a contradiction with trans people,” said Egale’s Trans Issues Committee co-chair Susan Gapka. “As visible as we are, we are almost entirely invisible in legislation and the healthcare system.”

In 2005 Siksay, the NDP MP for Burnaby-Douglas, introduced a private member’s bill that would have made just such an amendment by adding both gender identity and gender expression to the wording of the act. Though not trans himself, openly gay Siksay has made gender identity issues a personal commitment.

“I’ve been strongly moved by the discrimination and violence that trans people face in our society,” Siksay told the forum.

Although Siksay’s legislation wasn’t passed — it died on the order paper with the dissolution of Parliament leading up to the last election — he says that both he and the NDP continue to support amending the act. Siksay adds that he’d also like to see Canada’s hate crimes legislation expanded to protect trans people.

The forum was part of Egale’s new Trans Protection Campaign. Arron says that the organization is currently lobbying for a CHRA amendment and that it’s committed to political advocacy, court challenges and public education around trans issues. Egale plans to launch an action website later this year to get people involved in the campaign.