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Federal trans bill passes second reading in the Senate

Lesbian senator speaks against bill C-279

After a week of debate that saw senators speak for and against NDP MP Randall Garrison’s federal trans rights bill, C-279 passed second reading in the Senate May 29 and will now go to the standing Senate committee on human rights.

The bill would add gender identity to the list of protected grounds under the Canadian Human Rights Act and under the hate crimes section of the Criminal Code. C-279 passed in the House of Commons March 20 by a vote of 149 to 137.

Conservative Senator Donald Neil Plett spoke against the bill May 23, saying the definition of gender identity is an “entirely subjective and self-defined characteristic.”

Plett further evoked the rights of women as a contributing factor to his disapproval of the bill, reiterating the “bathroom bill” argument.

“There are reasons for separate male and female bathrooms. The reason for this, honourable senators, is that men and women are biologically different, whether we like it or not. Many concerned Canadians have written to me asking me to stand up for women and girls,” Plett said. “Many women have expressed that they would feel extremely uncomfortable in a restroom or a change room with a biological male, whether or not that person identified as female.”

Plett quoted an article he claims a concerned Canadian citizen sent him that details a trans individual exposing themselves in a Washington college change room.

“Women have worked and continue to work extremely hard to make headway on the issue of equality and women’s rights. We now have the opportunity to protect and defend the rights women have worked so hard to obtain. I urge all honourable senators to stand up for the rights of women and girls. I urge you to strongly consider the impact that blurring the lines of gender will have,” Plett said.

When Canada’s first openly lesbian Senator, Nancy Ruth, spoke against the bill May 29, she did so wearing pink shoes to emphasize her support of women’s rights.

“Women and girls in Canada are not protected from hate speech under the Criminal Code, and this bill does not rectify that when it could,” Ruth said.

“For 35 years, across numerous bills, Parliament has told the girls and women of Canada that, despite alarming rates of violence against girls and women, violence that typically includes hate speech, they are not worthy of protection,” she explained.

“The omission is not an oversight. In 1985, the federally appointed Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution said that there was ‘ample evidence’ indicating women were the targets of hate material. The committee recommended that the Criminal Code hate laws be amended to extend protection to women, but no Parliament has done that. Why? I have spoken before in this chamber about this gap in the law,” she continued.

“This bill will privilege men who choose to become women over women who are born female,” Ruth said. “While I do not question the good intentions of the sponsor and the supporters of the bill, I simply do not understand how they could advance this bill without including all women. Passage of Bill C-279 will mean that only if a woman is born a man who later chooses to identify as a woman will she receive protection, but a woman born a woman will not receive the same protection.”

Echoing Plett, Conservative Senator Don Meredith returned to the “bathroom bill,” saying that although C-279 has been bestowed this moniker jokingly, “this issue is no laughing matter.”

Meredith quoted Diane Watts of REAL Women of Canada, who testified against the bill at the standing committee on justice and human rights Nov 27, saying C-279 would shield pedophiles from prosecution.

“Certainly not all transgendered people are sexual deviants, but it cannot be ignored that there are certain individuals who could use this proposed legislation to prey on society’s most vulnerable – our youth. The sponsor of this bill, Mr Randall Garrison, has dismissed these concerns and referred to such claims as ‘offensive.’ I strongly disagree.”

Meredith ended his argument by saying it is “offensive that people would even consider putting women and children at risk unnecessarily. If passage of this bill results in the potential for exposure to harm of even one woman or child, that is one woman or child too many. I urge honourable senators to join me in voting against Bill C-279.”

Not all Conservative Senators spoke against the bill.

On May 28, Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin said: “If discrimination based on the gender identity of some prevents them from having an opportunity equal to that of other individuals to make for themselves the life that they are able and wish to have, to the extent of being a source of prejudice and causing a strike against the human dignity of those individuals, such discrimination must become prohibited and in so doing guarantee the equality of rights pledged for all by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell says he is hopeful that, thanks to Conservative Senators like Nolin, the bill will pass by the end of June.

“I’ve had 16 say they would vote with us. But you don’t know until you actually get there. If all 16 voted with us then it would pass. It would be a little bit close but it would pass,” Mitchell told Xtra at Ottawa trans support group Gender Mosaic’s 25th anniversary reception, May 29.

Addressing Gender Mosaic’s reception, Mitchell said passing the bill would be his greatest accomplishment since playing a role in passing the gay marriage bill in 2005.

“I was talking to Joanne Law and others about just what a remarkable time it’s been. It really is a milestone. This is a very, very difficult issue . . . the courage it takes to go through what Gender Mosaic has done and [what they] do every day is absolutely so worthwhile and so important,” Mitchell said.

The bill’s originator, Garrison, was greeted enthusiastically at Gender Mosaic’s reception.

Garrison humbly said he “stands on the shoulders of giants.” He paid tribute to former NDP MP Bill Siksay, who introduced C-279’s predecessor C-389, which died in the Senate due to the 2010 election.

The omission of gender expression from C-279 is a contentious issue for many in the trans community and Garrison acknowledged this fact.

“I know there are some in the room who are not happy because the bill does not include the words gender expression. And I am not happy as well,” he said. “However, our choice was nothing, or the bill with gender identity.”

Egale Canada believes that once the bill is passed and reaches the courts, gender expression can be put back in the bill, Garrison said.

“Because after all, what does gender identity mean if you can’t express it? It was a bit of a sleight of hand on our part with the Conservatives to say, ‘if that’s the term that bothers you for some reason, okay, we’ll compromise at this point.’ But we’re not giving up on the whole queer community,” Garrison said.

But once the bill passes, there is more work to do, Garrison said.

“We need to take this bill to all those organizations, public and private, who have not yet learned that acceptance is a basic Canadian value – not toleration, but acceptance and partnership . . . I pledge to work with all of you to continue the work until we make these rights that are only going to be in theory when they pass, make them a reality for every Canadian,” he said.

Gender Mosaic member Kay Lockhart says she is hopeful the bill will pass by the end of June.

“I think it is the time. People have to realize that we have to move forward,” Lockhart says.

It is Lockhart’s dream that in 25 years, trans Canadians won’t need groups like Gender Mosaic.

“I hope that at that time there will be such acceptance of trans people that we won’t need a support group. That people can just come out and be who they are and people will just say ‘okay,'” she says. “Heterosexual people have no need to have support groups, do they?”