3 min

Really real women

When a court buys into a silly argument

Credit: Xtra files

The Vancouver Rape Relief Centre has been fighting since 1995 to make sure that Kimberly Nixon and others like her can never be volunteer counsellors. Rape Relief has a policy that only women born as such can be counsellors. Nixon is a male-to- female (MTF) transsexual. According to Rape Relief, Nixon doesn’t qualify as a woman because she has not been a woman all her life.

Nixon took her case to the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, which agreed Nixon had been discrimin-ated against on the basis of sex. Rape Relief appealed. In December 2003, the Supreme Court Of British Columbia overturned the tribunal decision.

Justice ERA Edwards agreed with Rape Relief, ruling that it was entitled to exclude Nixon, since she was not a woman according to their standards. The court said that although the exclusion violated Nixon’s dignity, a reasonable MTF would not have experienced the exclusion in the same way.

“No objective male-to-female transsexual, standing in Ms Nixon’s shoes, could plausibly say, ‘Rape Relief has excluded me. I can no longer participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life of the province.'”

Apparently, a reasonable MTF might be upset if a written law excluded her from a government benefit or if a restaurant refused to serve her. But “exclusion by a small relatively obscure self-defining private organization cannot have the same impact on human dignity.”

A woman according to Rape Relief’s standards? A reasonable MTF? What’s going on here? This is well beyond the normal range of legal gobbledegook. This is radical feminism run amuck, with a court in tow.

Rape Relief has an agenda of stopping violence against women, defining violence pretty broadly, as radical feminists often do, to include prostitution and pornography. While their definition of violence may be broad, it is apparently really important to limit the definition of woman. Rape Relief told Nixon that “a woman had to be oppressed since birth to be a volunteer.” On this definition, I guess I couldn’t be a volunteer, since I don’t really think of myself as having been oppressed every day of my life. (Luckily it’s not one of my career aspirations.)

For Rape Relief, being a woman is all about oppression. It’s all about being oppressed because of your sex by the other sex, including violence, rape, pornography and prostitution. This narrow crazy radical feminist talk creates much conflict within the queer community – and gives feminism such a bad anti-sex rap.

Personally, I think feminism is all about gender: gender roles, identities and power. It’s about how women and men are expected to act in particular ways in the world, including the expectation to act hetero-sexually. As such, it has at least something to say about why and how queer folks have been marginalized.

But every time a radical feminist organization speaks on behalf of feminism, the idea of an alliance between queers and feminists suffers a near fatal blow.

While it’s much worse that a court seems to have accepted this nonsense, it may also be that Edwards didn’t actually endorse Rape Relief’s position. Another reading may be that he saw this case as a tempest in a teapot. The decision describes Rape Relief as a “small, relatively obscure” organization, whose politics are described as “an article of faith,” analogous to religious beliefs. Whatever harm Nixon might have suffered by not being able to participate – it’s just not serious. In fact, it describes Nixon’s motivation to volunteer rather derisively as all about “vindicat[ing] her womanhood.”

In other words, the court doesn’t give a damn about either of the parties. But between the two, it cares about Nixon less.

The women at Rape Relief may think they’ve won. But the battle is not over; Nixon filed an appeal with the BC Court Of Appeal last week, which is bound to take more than a year to be heard.

So far the only victors are those seeking to discredit transgendered folks, and those seeking to firm up the wedge between queers and feminists.

* Brenda Cossman is a member of the board of directors of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra.