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Trans activists demand political action

Liberals & Tories noncommittal

INDEFATIGABLE. Shannon Blatt says she doesn't understand why any party would oppose paying for SRS. Credit: (Alex Eady)

With a provincial election rapidly approaching, trans activists are working to raise the profile of their issues with both the queer community and Ontario’s political parties.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to put it on the political agenda,” says Susan Gapka of the Trans Health Lobby Group.

The lobby group — along with such allies as Egale Canada and the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario — wants to have sex reassignment surgery (SRS) relisted under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Ontario stopped paying for SRS in 1998 under the Mike Harris Conservative government.

The Lobby Group also wants gender identity included as a protected category under the Ontario Human Rights Code and a simplification of the process for changing gender on government identity documents like health cards and birth certificates.

Gapka says inclusion under the human rights code has become the most public issue and the one most likely to gain political support. While the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and courts have ruled that trans people are protected under the category of sex, they are not explicitly recognized under the legislation. NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo put forward a private member’s bill calling to change that, but the bill died on the order paper when the last session of parliament ended in June. DiNovo says she plans to reintroduce her bill after the October election.

“It’s such an easy thing: add two words to the human rights code,” she says.

Other parties are less committed. The Conservatives did not return Xtra’s calls for this story, but Gapka says she has met with party leader John Tory.

“He was noncommittal about bringing these issues forward,” says Gapka. “He said he has a party to lead into the election and that’s his priority over the next months.”

Liberal health minister George Smitherman would not commit to human rights code changes either.

“I do not know of a formal plan for amendments to the human rights code,” he says. “But if there were discussions that would be a focus. What I’m more focused on is trying to deal with access to services for trans people.”

Smitherman is even less supportive of relisting SRS.

“Our party doesn’t have a formalized position on SRS,” says Smitherman. “We’re more focused on improving the access of the GLBTT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered] community to healthcare.”

DiNovo says the NDP would relist the surgery as soon as possible.

“It would cost under $200,000 a year,” she says.

Shannon Blatt, the Ottawa liaison for the soon-to-be launched Trans Human Rights Campaign, says she doesn’t understand why any party would oppose paying for the surgery.

“[Delisting] was a blatantly discriminatory act, not economically or medically justified,” she says.

Blatt adds that surgery is not the only treatment for gender dysphoria that should be covered by OHIP.

“Outside of Toronto it can be very difficult to find doctors who are willing to prescribe hormones and who are qualified,” she says. “It should also include public funding of mastectomy, hysterectomy, facial-hair removal and qualified voice therapy.”

Blatt and other trans advocates say they might have a chance of making some headway on the issue of identification.

A 2006 OHRC ruling on a complaint against Peel Regional Police determined that when police demand a body search, a trans person has the right to choose the gender of the officer doing the search. But, the OHRC ruled, police can still ask questions to determine whether a person is indeed transgendered. In Ontario a trans person can change the gender listed on their driver’s licence with a simple letter from a doctor.

Unless they’ve actually had SRS trans people are not permitted to change their birth certificates or health cards, or — on a federal level — their passports.

DiNovo says the NDP will support changes to the identification process. Smitherman says his ministry is also pushing for changes.

“Right now the changes occur only on presentation of evidence of change to gender,” he says. “The community is looking for an opportunity to change at an earlier date. We’re presenting some advocacy in trying to work this through with other government ministries.”

Helen Kennedy, the executive director of Egale Canada, says trans issues are on the national lobby group’s agenda. When Xtra spoke with Kennedy she was planning to question provincial party leaders at a debate on Sun, Sep 9.

“It would be really nice if, in the course of a debate, the leaders made a commitment,” she said. “It’s our job to educate them and show them it’s the right thing.”

The debate has since been cancelled due to lack of committment from some of the party leaders.

Blatt says the provincial election is only one step. She points to the fact that the Canadian Human Rights Act and hate crimes, hate propaganda and hate crimes sentencing legislation all fail to explicitly protect gender identity. Not even sex is mentioned in federal hate propaganda legislation.

Blatt also says that the treatment of trans people in federal prisons needs to be addressed.

“At present, in federal prisons, if you are a pre-op trans woman you’ll be sent to a male prison,” she says. “This is a tremendous safety issue for trans women. They are repeatedly raped.”

Blatt says that trans people in federal prisons, ironically, have a better chance of obtaining SRS than those living freely in Ontario.

“You are permitted to complete the transition,” she says. “Corrections Canada pays for it.”

Blatt says the chances of trans advances are improving with new support from allies like trade unions and Egale. But Egale has faced criticism for downplaying trans issues in the past.

“The board has identified trans issues as a priority for the organization,” says Kennedy. “People didn’t realize at the start of the same-sex marriage debate how big it would get. The trans issues have that kind of potential.”

Gapka says she hopes trans issues are moving toward that level of support.

“If you look back five or 10 years we didn’t have the profile we have now,” she says. “There was no group meeting with politicians. Marriage consumed the advocacy energy across the country. We’re working with determination to make trans issues the next frontier.”

But Kennedy says that when it comes to fundraising, trans issues might not generate the same level of support that same-sex marriage did.

“Raising money is going to be a big challenge,” she says. “We rely very much on the generosity of our donors.”

Regardless, Blatt and Gapka say the one big advantage the trans community has is the toughness and determination of its members.

“More trans people are getting involved are coming out,” says Blatt, “And those of us who are out tend to be very militant.”

Gapka says trans people are used to fighting for everything.

“Some of us are very resilient,” she says. “I think that can translate into a political struggle. One of the reasons we’ve had some success is it’s the trans community itself creating the movement. We’re not dependent on others. We have to be very strong to survive, so that is something that might get us through.”