Most teenagers don’t have a hand in crafting laws. But Astrid Neilson-Miller isn’t just any 14 year old.
The Grade 9 student is the driving force behind two private member’s bills in the BC legislature that aim to protect the privacy of transgender people.
The bills, introduced by BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, would remove gendered language from the two acts that govern information privacy in BC and specifically protect information that might indicate a person’s gender identity or expression.
Weaver introduced the bills after a meeting with Neilson-Miller, who had noticed that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) used “he or she” over a dozen times and specifically protected information that might indicate things like ethnic origin or sexual orientation, but not gender.
“When I read it, I feel this separation of the document. I don’t feel protected by them,” Neilson-Miller says. “Plus it’s a major pet peeve of mine. It’s so inefficient to use ‘he or she’!”
It’s not surprising Neilson-Miller headed straight to politics; they like to stir things up. When I ask them what pronouns they use, they say that all pronouns are fine. “I like it when people alternate pronouns every sentence, though,” they add with a dry chuckle. “It just confuses people so much.”
Neilson-Miller first stumbled into provincial politics at Esquimalt High School when they picked up a flyer for the Trans Tipping Point project, a transgender youth group organized by University of Victoria academic Lindsay Herriot.
As part of the project, Neilson-Miller went to talk to the Ministry of Children and Family Development about problems facing transgender teens. That’s where they became curious about how transgender people’s privacy is handled by the government, and how teenagers’ private information might be disseminated. They read through FIPPA and PIPA line-by-line, noticing the gendered language and the omission of gender identity and expression.
As someone who doesn’t always feel comfortable using he or she pronouns, Neilson-Miller saw an easy fix: change “he or she” to “they” and add “gender identity and expression” to the list.
With Herriot’s help, Neilson-Miller and five of their teammates with the Trans Tipping Point project landed meetings with members of BC’s legislative assembly. In their first meeting, an NDP MLA listened politely but noncommittally to what Neilson-Miller had to say. But in the second meeting, with Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, they struck gold.
“It was amazingly positive,” Neilson-Miller says. “He was the most engaged. He asked questions.” And by the end of the meeting, he gave his commitment to propose changes to FIPPA and PIPA in the legislature.
On March 15, Weaver adopted Neilson-Miller’s idea to the letter, and proposed it in two private member bills to the BC legislature, with Neilson-Miller and and their friends watching from the gallery.
Despite Weaver’s enthusiasm, it is not clear what exactly the bills will do. The Green Party says the changes from “he or she” to “they” are simply about representation — allowing trans and non-binary people to see themselves reflected in legal statute.
Adding the words “gender identity and expression” into FIPPA is a little stickier. The part of the law the Greens’ amendment targets explains when the head of a government body should refuse to give out information in a public freedom of information request.
The act says that giving out information “is presumed to be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy if… the personal information indicates the third party’s racial or ethnic origin, sexual orientation or religious or political beliefs or associations.”
The Greens’ new amendment would tack “gender identity and expression” onto the end of that list. But what would a government body have to do to prevent releasing information about a person’s gender expression? Would government bodies, for example, have to redact all gendered pronouns from released documents?
A Green Party spokesperson explained that the bill is intended to protect information that might indicate that a government employee or other person mentioned in a government document is transgender.
Xtra consulted human rights lawyer Elizabeth Reid, who said it isn’t clear yet what “gender identity and expression” means in the law, or what the bills would do.
“I think we’re still in the process of figuring it out, from a legal perspective,” she says. “The scope of what ‘gender identity and expression’ can encompass is still working its way through the courts and tribunals. There are some guidelines, but I don’t think we have a definitive idea of what that means.”
Reid agrees that the new law could mean anything from redacting information about a transgender person’s transition to blotting out gendered pronouns altogether. “To some extent right now we have to make a guess about what a judge may or may not decide if they’re looking at it,” she says.
Morgane Oger, a transgender rights campaigner and the vice-president of the BC NDP, applauds Neilson-Miller’s idea.
“The housekeeping aspects make a lot of sense,” she says. “We need to take away binary gender messaging in our laws because we recognize that there are more than two genders.”
Oger can’t think of any situations in which a freedom of information request has actually exposed a transgender person’s private information, but she says the bill speaks to a real need to think about gender and privacy. She points to gender markers on birth certificates or driver’s licenses, for example, as places where the dissemination of gender information makes life difficult for trans people.
“We don’t want a situation where information about people’s gender is going to be used against them,” she says. “Information about people’s gender in British Columbia is still being used to harm them, and we should try to end that.”
For their part, Neilson-Miller isn’t too caught up in the legal intricacies of their bill. They mostly want to get people talking.
“Honestly, I don’t know the best solution or answer,” they say. “My goal is to try to spread awareness about how important it is to protect this kind of information.”
The two bills to amend FIPPA and PIPA have not yet seen a second reading in the legislature.