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Dan Irving and Jennifer Evans

Why Canada should protect gender identity Add to ...

Canada is well positioned to make a landmark statement in the coming weeks to recognize gender identity within the Criminal Code and the Human Rights Act. Since New Democratic MP Bill Siksay's private member's bill was presented to the Commons justice committee in the summer, it has garnered the support of the Canadian Bar Association and the major public sector union PSAC, and was recently endorsed by Vancouver city council.

Mr. Siksay's efforts to garner official protection against unlawful and discriminatory treatment of transsexual and transgendered persons would go a great way in destigmatizing those whose lives fall outside what dominant society considers as normal.

While Canada has made great strides in opening marriage and adoption to same-sex partners, there is still a case to be made for ensuring vital social and legal protections to members of transsexual and transgendered communities. Adopting Bill C-389 would not end discrimination. But it would go a long way in protecting those who still face physical violence, economic disadvantage and social ostracism for being perceived as different.

There are multiple reasons why society struggles to understand the regular challenges many transsexual and transgendered persons face. Society takes for granted that there are two distinct sexes, with two corresponding ways of expressing gender identity. And we have concocted a range of stereotypes to reinforce the supposed chasms of difference between men and women, boys and girls.

Despite the fact that biologists such as Brown University professor Anne Fausto-Sterling have demonstrated that "nature" itself yields not two distinct sexes but as many as five in a small but still significant number of cases, we still think male or female is something constant and unchanging. Sex is not only something viewed as uncomplicated and self-evident, but masculinity and femininity are tied to one's birth-assigned sex. To many, men are from Mars and women from Venus, and "normal" sexual desire is focused toward the opposite sex.

Although we've successfully widened legal categories to consider same-sex relationships, we still struggle to understand why some people desire differently. Is it nature or nurture, chromosomally determined or learned behaviour? If there is any answer, it is that there is no single explanation for the different ways people understand their bodies and desires.

Transsexual and transgendered individuals expose the shortcomings of our narrow categories. Because they trouble this vision of male and female, they have been "socially erased," to borrow a term from Concordia Professor Viviane Namaste. The result is a serious dearth in understanding concerning trans identities and everyday experience.

This lack of understanding can take on many forms, from workplace discrimination to physical, emotional and sexual violence. The lack of education concerning the existence of trans people and their various societal contributions has a significantly negative impact on this demographic. Many trans people, especially transsexual women from visible minorities, struggle to gain access to education, employment, health care and essential social services. As a result, many trans persons are placed at high risk of impoverishment, illness, homelessness and violence.

As faculty members teaching in the sexual studies minor program at Carleton University, we are not surprised by the comments offered by Charles McVety, president of the Canada Christian College in Toronto in The Globe. Mr. McVety's use of the language of pedophilia, and other forms of sexual predation, criminal opportunism and violence within female-specific spaces serves as a perfect example of the pathologization, criminalization and fear-mongering that continues to mark the lives of those within the trans communities.

Often, it has been visible trans people themselves who have been victims of sexual, physical and emotional violence within gender segregated public spaces. This fall, a female-bodied mature student was punched when trying to access the women's washroom at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. While this news story made the rounds in the blogosphere and in the queer press, it is perhaps unsurprising why it failed to garner mainstream attention.

It was decades of misunderstanding and unequal treatment that prompted Mr. Siksay to sponsor Bill C-389. The proposal to enshrine "gender identity" and "gender expression" within the Criminal Code and the Human Rights Act is significant for members of sex and gender minority communities because it offers hard won symbolic recognition.

While trans citizens are protected under existing human rights categories, the formal acknowledgment of gender identity provides legal grounds to resist exclusion and fight misogynist violence. The bill also lends itself to strengthening grassroots initiatives to empower trans communities. Instead of resting on fear and misinformation, Bill C-389 provides the opportunity for meaningful discourse on gender identities and the ways that those of us with transgender experiences contribute our various skills towards enriching Canadian society.

Dan Irving is sexuality studies minor program co-ordinator and Jennifer Evans is associate professor of history at Carleton University.

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