4 min

The New Normal hopes to change a life

Ottawa radio station will award cash prize to one trans person

Credit: Adrienne Ascah

Talia Johnson gives an emphatic “hell yeah” when asked if she would consider entering Hot 89.9’s The New Normal contest.

The Ottawa radio station announced The New Normal contest on Sept 8, 2015, immediately sparking discussion. Aimed at raising awareness of trans issues, the contest will award $40,000 to a trans person to help with their transition.

Johnson, a local trans activist and public educator, says while there’s always a concern that initiatives like this won’t be done respectfully, there are potentially big advantages to the contest. From challenging transphobia to a possible financial windfall, The New Normal isn’t easily dismissed, she says.

“If I were to enter, I would see it as an opportunity to do education,” Johnson says. “Given the wait times in Ontario for people who need the [gender reassignment] surgery, it would allow them to jump the queue at CAMH [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] and pay for it out of pocket.”

Whether or not a trans person wants surgery is a personal choice, but for people who do, they have a long road ahead of them, she says. A CAMH spokesperson confirms to Daily Xtra that the wait time for an initial assessment is two years. After that time, not everyone will be approved for surgery, and those who are approved face varying additional wait times. A spokesperson from the provincial ministry of health also confirms that the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) won’t cover the cost of gender assignment surgery without a CAMH recommendation.

While visibility is increasing, there’s a lot the mainstream public doesn’t know about trans issues, says Jeff Mauler, a Hot 89.9 host. In 2005, the radio station flew a gay couple from the Amazing Race to Ottawa for their wedding, in order to draw attention to same-sex marriage, so there’s a track record of coming up with imaginative ways to spark discussion about topical issues, he says.

“I think Caitlyn Jenner sort of kicked things off for us earlier this year and I think we saw it grow with Orange is the New Black and Jeffrey Tambor winning an Emmy for Transparent,” he says. “It just keeps growing and growing in pop culture so we wanted to reflect what everybody was talking about.”

Amanda Ryan, a local trans activist and member of Gender Mosaic, says when representatives from Hot 89.9 talked to her about a month before The New Normal was announced, she was “cautiously supportive.”

“I could see the potential for a lot of good information coming out about the contest,” Ryan says. “They made it very clear right off the bat this was going to be an educational opportunity, not simply a PR stunt and I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve been doing it so far.”

She’s picked up on a few mistakes, like pointing out that “transgendered” isn’t a word and suggesting hosts say “trans” more often.

“I’ve suggested to them that they use ‘trans’ more than ‘transgender’ because that tends to be a hot point with some of the people in Ottawa and they’re very co-operative about that,” Ryan says.

While some people consider “trans” more of an umbrella term than “transgender,” Ryan says she considers the terms interchangeable. Still, it’s important to be aware that more people are using the word “trans” and many prefer it, she says.

Both Ryan and Johnson cite anonymity as one of their initial concerns, as trans people disproportionately experience violence and discrimination. Even trans people who aren’t closeted wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with public attention, Johnson says.

Before the winner is chosen, the fine print requires finalists to be available to be interviewed and filmed, and they must also provide access to their home and friends. But, there’s also a disclaimer about anonymity.

“We respect anyone’s preference for anonymity and will not publicize any submission details in a way that may identify the submitter without their consent,” the disclaimer reads.

Mike Hirsch, Hot 89.9’s promotions director, adds his reassurance about anonymity.

“We will absolutely respect anyone’s privacy and if they would like to stay anonymous we will gladly respect that decision,” Hirsch said in an email to Daily Xtra.

The radio station’s need to gather information is a vetting process largely based on legal reasons to make sure applicants aren’t misrepresenting themselves, Mauler says.

While he understands the public’s interest in how the contest is run and who will win $40,000, Mauler emphasizes that, for the radio station, it’s not about the money — they don’t even consider it a contest.

“We never on the air referred to it as a contest,” he says. “We look at it like more of a public service announcement. There is a price tag attached to this, yes, but our whole motive in all of this is to talk about the transgender community and what people are going through.”

Since The New Normal was announced, the hosts, on-air guests and listeners have engaged in a dialogue that’s increasing the understanding of trans issues, Mauler says.

“We had a mom on the air with us . . . talking about her transgender child and what she has gone through with her family and the bullying and just so many different emotions,” he says.

The deadline for applications is Sept 30, 2015. On Oct 5, the winner will be announced on air during the Morning Hot Tub with Mauler, Rush, Jenni and Josie.

The winner is free to spend the money any way they want, but the hope is they’ll spend it on costs related to their transition, Mauler says.

Not all trans people choose to have gender reassignment surgery, but even if someone went through the lengthy process of having the surgery covered by OHIP, there are still additional costs the province won’t cover, Johnson says.

A spokesperson from the ministry of health confirms psychotherapy, electrolysis, voice therapy and voice surgery are not covered. Chest contouring procedures for female-to-male trans people aren’t covered, nor does OHIP cover travel costs for people who must travel for any medical services.

Beyond the possible financial boon, and even with the guarantee of anonymity, entering a contest like this can stir up a lot of emotions, Johnson says.

“My advice to anybody who chooses to enter would be to make sure that other support systems are in place,” she says. “Have a friend or a counsellor, somebody to talk to to hash some of this stuff out before entering.”