Skip to main content

Kimberly Nixon was 37 and unemployed when she saw an ad for volunteers at a crisis centre called Vancouver Rape Relief in 1995.

Ms. Nixon was herself a survivor of an abusive relationship, and had once sought safety at a crisis centre. She thought it would make her feel stronger, helping other women trapped as she once had been.

Halfway through the initial orientation for volunteers, a Rape Relief co-ordinator took Ms. Nixon aside and asked if she was a woman. Ms. Nixon said yes.

In her mind, she always had been. But she knew what the co-ordinator was really asking, so she volunteered the information that she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, but fully treated. In other words, she was born in a male body, but had had sex-reassignment surgery and was now fully, medically and legally, a woman.

The Rape Relief worker told Ms. Nixon she would have to leave: that only women who were born women could work there. The next day, Ms. Nixon filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Commission.

"It was humiliating," Ms. Nixon, who had then been living as a woman for 14 years, told reporters. "I've been who I am since I was born. I am a woman. I was just born wrong."

In June, a B.C. Supreme Court judge rejected an attempt by Rape Relief to have the case thrown out. The centre argued that the province's human-rights legislation did not extend protection to gender identity.

Mr. Justice Barry Davies said the case could proceed and provided some of the first codification of the rights of transgendered people. He said the laws covering discrimination on the basis of sex do not exclude people "merely because that person or group is not readily identifiable as being either male or female." On Monday, Ms. Nixon's complaint will finally be heard by the tribunal.

The issue has caused fierce debate over who, exactly, is a woman. Long-time activist Judy Rebick will testify for the rape centre. An Internet list-serve run by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women became the site of a feud between the two camps. Feminist journals and groups chose sides.

"In a world that insists there are only two genders, who decides who is which?" asks Ms. Nixon's lawyer, barbara finlay.

Ms. finlay -- and many of the country's rape-crisis centres -- says someone who has been living as a woman for 14 years, whose driver's licence says she is a woman, is one.

The women at Vancouver Rape Relief argue that Ms. Nixon was immediately identifiable as a transsexual, a former man, and might have made women seeking shelter from violent men uncomfortable; and that because she didn't grow up female, she could not empathize with victims of violence seeking counselling.

Suzanne Jay, spokeswoman for Rape Relief, one of the longest-running centres in Canada, said they have been been unfairly demonized by this complaint. They believe transgendered people are entitled to protection against discrimination, she said -- but her centre also has the right to protect the women-only status it has had since it won a hiring exemption from the provincial government in 1973.

"We do not agree that every person that honestly claims to be a woman or to wish to be a woman is one," the centre explains on a Web site run by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. "We think that body parts, human history, growing-up experiences, social shaping all matter."

Ms. finlay counters that her client's ability to offer empathetic counselling should have been tested, not assumed because of the body in which she grew up: "The point of a human-rights complaint is that people have the right to be assessed on merit rather than on irrelevant physical characteristics."

Ms. Jay noted that the centre tried several times to resolve the situation through mediation -- offering Ms. Nixon an opportunity to volunteer with a fundraising committee, which involves both men and women -- and offering an apology and financial compensation for "pain and embarrassment."

In the end, Rape Relief opted to fight the complaint at a tribunal, on the grounds that three other women-only spaces in Vancouver had recently, in their view, lost that status after male-to-female transsexuals had gone to work or volunteer there.

Rape Relief still has no policy on transgendered people. "What we have is a belief that women born women have the right to organize together about violence," Ms. Jay said. And the right to exclude people as they see fit? "I guess so, yes. . . . What we use in our work is our past experience as women and all the threats of violence we experienced growing up as girls. Ms. Nixon doesn't share that particular experience."

Ms. Rebick has shocked many feminists by agreeing to provide expert-witness testimony for the rape crisis centre, the prevailing view these days being that transgendered women are to be welcomed in the women's movement in much the same way lesbians were 25 years ago.

Ms. Rebick declined to comment on her participation. "I'm not doing media on this," she said. "I'm going to do my testimony and that's it. . . . I'm testifying on how women-only groups developed and why they're still needed."

NAC, an umbrella group of 700 women's groups, officially has no position on this case and would not comment.

Rape Relief's stand on transgendered women puts it in sharp contrast to most other crisis centres in Canada. Marilyn McLean, program director of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, noted that transgendered women are disproportionately represented among street people and prostitutes, and are a high-risk group for sexual violence.

Geraldine Glattstein, executive director of WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre in Vancouver, and a former staffer of Rape Relief, said Ms. Nixon would have been welcome to volunteer at her centre.

"All our work is anti-oppression work, so why wouldn't we find the oppression of women who feel they are trapped in the wrong body equally important?" she said. "If they feel they are women, they are. It's not a transvestite, a man in women's clothes -- it's a woman."

Ms. McLean said she understands Rape Relief's concern about a transgendered woman's ability to counsel rape victims. "The way someone is socialized, whether that's against their will or not, affects their understanding of rape and sexual violence," she said. "But do I believe that means you can't be a counsellor? No." Her centre considers the transgender community among those they serve: "Anybody who's living life as a woman is vulnerable to violence."

Eleanor MacDonald, who teaches identity politics at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said that to assume a transgendered woman has been socialized in a way that precludes her from empathizing with women is highly suspect. "We are all socialized differently, and the assumption that all women are socialized the same is false," she said. "People who are socialized trans -- that is, grow up constantly aware they are in the wrong body -- are more like people with multiple sets of discrimination."

The whole argument baffles her: "Why does society, including feminists, have such difficulty recognizing that she has a legitimate claim to identifying herself as a woman, and has a legitimate place to work with other women on improving women's lives?"

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct