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Desks are pictured in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sept. 12, 2014. Parents of transgender youth urged members of the Senate’s legal committee on Thursday to back the Liberal government’s gender identity and gender expression bill, suggesting it could be a matter of life and death.

Chris Wattie/REUTERS

Parents of transgender youth urged members of the Senate's legal committee on Thursday to back the Liberal government's gender identity and gender expression bill, suggesting it could be a matter of life and death.

Melissa Schaettgen, a mother from Carp, Ont., shared her family's struggle with their nine-year-old transgender daughter Warner – a victim of assault – and the risks associated with speaking publicly about what they've gone through.

"You must ... know that by doing so, I put myself and my family at great risk," she told the committee.

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"After last telling our story publicly, we were bombarded with a number of letters and e-mails stating we were sick and that we should be shot and burned."

Many families live in constant fear and in hiding, she added, noting relatives and friends have turned their backs on their family.

"We initially considered hiding," Schaettgen said. "We initially considered moving away to a new community, starting over, having Warner living as her true self, but not telling people she was actually transgender. But for us, we felt like the only way to teach her to be proud and confident in herself is to come out and face the consequences."

All children, regardless of gender identity, should have access to public institutions and space including bathrooms, services and shelters, said Kimberley Manning, a professor of political science at Concordia University.

Manning's daughter, 11-year-old Florence Ens, is transgender.

"I think it is very important for this bill to go through because people need and they should have the right to express ... the gender that they want," Ens said. "For a lot of transgender people, it is hard to be able to express the gender of your choice without being intimidated or someone telling you that it is not right."

Some members of the Senate, including Conservative Sen. Don Plett, have expressed misgivings about the bill, including the notion that the concept of "gender expression" should be protected under human rights laws.

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In the last Parliament, that term was removed from legislation proposed by NDP MP Randall Garrison to ensure its passage in the House of Commons, but the bill was still blocked in the Senate.

Garrison, who said the Liberal government's current legislation is identical to his former bill, apart from a comma, believes it is critical for gender expression to be included in the body of the bill.

"It is the broadest protection," he said in an interview. "Gender identity can sometimes be a narrower concept about what your identity is and gender expression is a broader concept that deals with all forms of how you present or express yourself in public."

He also noted other countries including Australia and New Zealand have already adopted passports that address the issue of gender identity –an issue Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said is being explored by the government.

"That work is continuing," she said Thursday.

The Liberal government does not have to wait for its bill to pass to address this issue, Garrison said, noting he hopes it will move faster.

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Wilson-Raybould said it is important to speak up about the purpose of the bill.

It fills gaps that currently exist in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code and ensures that individuals who express their identity can do without fear of discrimination, she said.

It is important to dispel myths and stereotypes that exist about transgender and gender-diverse people, she added.

"We need to ensure and recognize that human rights are human rights," she said. "They're not conditional."

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