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Trans bill slips into Parliament

While Ottawa squabbles, Siksay charges on

A new trans rights bill may have little chance of passing through the House Of Commons, but activists are pleased that it’s even on the agenda.

New Democrat MP Bill Siksay’s private member’s bill, which passed first reading on May 17, would amend the Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination.

“I think it’s an outstanding first step forward in helping a group that suffers from the same discriminations experienced by gay and lesbian people before protection was ‘read in’ to the federal Charter Of Rights,” says Caitlin Glasson, who describes herself as “an immigrant to women’s country.”

“I hope it will also extend protection against some of the particular forms of discrimination suffered by trans people alone.”

Siksay says this bill fulfills an NDP promise from last year’s election. “It was also a personal commitment of mine.” The bill also follows on some bitterness that former MP Svend Robinson’s bill – which in 2003 added sexual orientation to the list of groups protected from hate propaganda – did not include protection based on gender identity or gender expression.

Siksay held a national e-mail consultation, as well as travelling to Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto to hold meetings with transsexual and transgendered people and groups. He says the bill “flows out of those consultations.”

The bill uses the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” rather than terms like transsexual, transgender, FTM (female to male) and MTF (male to female).

“Gender identity is widely considered to be the internal sense of identity of oneself as a man or a woman, while gender expression is the manner in which we express that internal identity,” explains Jessica Freedman, the first elected chair of Egale Canada’s trans issues committee. “Gender identity and gender expression are human rights categories in the same way as sexual orientation, age, race. Transgender and transsexual are specific identities and as such are fraught with controversy and contention.”

Glasson, who transitioned 13 years ago at age 25, says she had difficulty after changing her name on her identification but not her legal gender.

“But have surgery, and all of a sudden I’m legitimate in the eyes of Canadian governments. It’s a genital-essentialist argument that must offend any socially liberal person – that we are defined by the shape of our genitalia.

“It’s an odd conundrum, too, though, because we also live in a society where we are socially forbidden from sharing our genitalia with one another outside some fairly narrow areas of our lives. But we expect people to live only in the role determined by the shape of their genitals, sight unseen. Strange.”

Private member’s bills are drawn through a lottery system so there is no guarantee that the bill will continue on – especially given the volatile situation in Ottawa at the moment. Despite this, both Siksay and trans activists say that the introduction of the bill has gotten the issue before the House and in the public’s eye, which will hopefully help move the issue forward – if not right away, then later.

“I’m reasonably optimistic that in a year something will pass,” says Freedman. “It was very important that a bill be placed on the order paper and introduced, just to get our human rights on the table.”

Glasson agrees. “I think many advances in human rights have suffered from false starts and setbacks, and that even if it dies on the order paper, it will have had at least some effect in educating the members who’ve been part of the debate. Every piece of activism helps.”