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Ottawa joins trans rights gauntlet

Picking up Toronto's lead, locals organize

Where human rights are concerned, it is helpful when there’s clear-cut, no-nonsense wording in the law that protects those who are oppressed. That’s one of the guiding principles behind the Trans Human Rights Campaign
(THRC), which was recently launched in Toronto and has spread to Ottawa.

THRC’s goal is to change the wording of the Ontario Human Rights Code to include “gender identity” as a prohibited basis for discrimination and a petition is ready to be signed.

Shannon Blatt is the Ottawa liaison for THRC and she has had strong support from local activists. She says that no one in the Ottawa trans community is objecting to this amendment.

“We’re already legally protected under sex,” says Blatt. “But it’s not enough to leave it open to interpretation.” Trans people have also been protected under disability, but they want to cover all the bases.

Blatt is referring to the human rights complaints filed by Rosalyn Forrester, a trans woman who was unfairly treated by Peel Police during strip searches in 2001 and 2003. The Ontario tribunal found in her favour — Forrester had been unintentionally discriminated against on the basis of sex.

So with a growing body of jurisprudence at provincial tribunals already protecting trans persons on the basis of their sex, is it worth the fight?

Susan Gapka, chair of the Trans Health Lobby Group, certainly thinks so.

“When there’s explicit wording we’ll know we’re covered,” says Gapka.

“It’s really important for the community to see that they are protected formally,” says Blatt. “It will also assist masculine women and feminine men.”

The THRC is a project of the Trans Health Lobby Group, which is a committee of the Rainbow Health Network, and a group under the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO).

Trans people were explicitly singled out for denial of their health service rights in October of 1998, when then-Premier Mike Harris revoked funding for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). It wasn’t until 2005 that this issue went before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The same year, after much sweat and toil by trans activists, Premier Dalton McGuinty said during question period that his government would re-list SRS, pending the favour of the tribunal. The decision — that those who had already begun transitioning in 1998 deserved to have the rest of their surgeries covered — left a question mark over the most important issue: is the province obliged to foot the bill for new patients?

“It comes down to healthcare spending, which is as hot as you can get politically,” says Blatt. “We’re going to let our presence be known to Mr McGuinty.”

While McGuinty has not restored funding, Egale, Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have expressed their support.

“There is a lot of unity behind this campaign,” says Blatt. “Really an unprecedented convergence in the trans community, not seen before. People are coming together around this code amendment.”

Gapka also shares this sentiment.

“As an oppressed group, we often have trouble being united, but there is agreement on this issue,” says Gapka.

“We want people to know that it is wrong to discriminate against people based on gender identity,” says Gapka.

She also says having gender identity included in the code will ease the already painful experience of coming out.

“I think it’ll encourage and inspire some self-esteem,” says Gapka.

A postcard campaign was launched during this year’s Toronto Pride weekend, in addition to the actual petition and a banner for the parade stating, “The time to deliver on trans human rights is now.”

The time may be now, however, the political aspect to this campaign is unlikely to reach its goal anytime soon. There is much more work to do before the amendment actually goes before committees and gets political advocacy.

But that does not mean it’s in the far and distant future either, but that it will take time, as public opinion and politics take time. Both Blatt and Gapka note that other movements may have been slow but they have succeeded, and that is reason to be hopeful.

If it doesn’t pass, Blatt says, “we’ll be marching in the streets, rubber to the road activism. We’re going to win.”

Such an amendment would make Ontario the first province to officially protect “gender identity”. The Northwest Territories prohibited trans discrimination formally in 2002.