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Trans health project tries to fill information gap

How many trans people are there in Toronto? Is the perception that Ontario has Canada’s largest trans population correct? Right now even basic statistics about trans people simply aren’t known.

“Research information is fundamentally missing,” says Rebecca Hammond, cofacilitator at Trans Youth Toronto and one of the coinvestigators of Trans Pulse, a community-based research initiative that has just launched its second phase.

“The Trans Pulse Project illuminates the idea that trans people are erased from medical research. There is no accounting of the trans community in our national census and there is a lack of information and research due to systemic barriers and transphobia.”

Initiated in 2004 and with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research until 2010 the Trans Pulse project’s research is comprised of qualitative (focus groups and interviews) and quantitative (survey) components with a focus on social exclusion and its effects on health.

One of the key findings coming out of phase one of the project, which was funded by the Wellesley Institute and The Ontario HIV Treatment Network, was income instability among trans people. More than 40 percent of participants described themselves as unemployed, unable to work or underemployed with 55 percent of the participants having an annual income of less than $20,000.

“A lot of what people were talking about in the community soundings was social exclusion,” says Greta Bauer, lead investigator with Trans Pulse and assistant professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario. “The number of ways people are excluded was incredible. Social exclusion exists in terms of housing, jobs, income security, basic and emergency healthcare, transitioning and other services, therapists not knowing about trans issues, gyms, religious institutions and much more. No matter how resourceful people are, they are continually banging their heads against walls.

“On one end of the spectrum you can have people being denied access to the shelter system and on the other end you can have people having to choose between a down payment on a house or paying for surgery out of their own pocket.”

While other provinces, the military and even Corrections Canada cover the costs of sex reassignment surgery it was delisted from coverage by Ontario’s health insurance plan in 1998 under Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government.

Currently the Trans Pulse Project has eight investigators — five trans people and three allies. As part of phase two the group will be conducting a number of trans-only meetings across the province, making the project unique in that it puts trans health in the hands of trans people.

“There is a distrust with research and surveys in the community due to fears based on historical injustices,” says Hammond. “Our project is also exploring the implications of the privilege of cisgendered people in a cissexist world.” Cisgendered is a relatively new term coined to describe people whose chromosomal gender matches their experience of their gender, in other words people who are not trans.

The Trans Pulse Project has the potential to address many of the injustices currently facing trans people in the province.

“In a theoretical way we are trying to challenge the way the world is structured and the misconceptions that institutions and service providers have about who their client base is and why services get off scot-free in terms of not providing adequate care,” says Hammond.

“The oppression of trans people is the next frontier for human rights,” adds Hammond. “People are being discriminated against in the ways in which they are denied access to housing, education and healthcare. We are exploring why people experience poor health; looking at health in a broad way including social determinants. It is going to take education and research to overcome the assumptions about who we are in the broader cisgendered world.”