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How a political battle became a rallying cry for Canada’s trans community

Bill C-16 became law this week, capping off a 12-year fight for recognition and rights in the trans community

Canada’s trans human rights bill C-16 has, finally, become the law of the land.

To get there, the bill endured a 12-year-long struggle to drag the issue out from the shadows, endure a gauntlet of manufactured controversies, and through Canada’s arcane rules of Parliamentary procedure. It finally received royal assent on Monday night.

That process, however, proved a formative experience for Canada’s transgender, gender non-binary, or genderfluid activists and advocates — more simply, the trans community — and provided a litany of lessons in activism, law-making, and politics.

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“C-16 enables a vulnerable group to take a rightful seat in Canadian society.”

The legislation adds gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds to the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, which would create a civil recourse for trans Canadians who have been discriminated against in federally-regulated workplaces, and recognize violence targeting trans people as a hate crime. Obtaining those changes was no small feat, but there is just as much significance in the actual work to get them in front of Canada’s lawmakers.

The federal bill marks the first time that trans Canadians came together to lobby for a national political cause. And, although it took some time, it also marks their first success.

When the bill first came forward, gay marriage had not even become the law of the land. Yet getting the bill introduced, even if it was doomed to fail, provided much of the inspiration for the other legislative initiatives that have taken place along the way.When the first version of this bill was introduced in Parliament, there were next to no explicit legal protections for trans people anywhere in the country.

As it passed in the House of Commons and in each provincial legislature, it became a symbolic act, signalling that discrimination against trans and gender-diverse Canadians was no longer acceptable. Now, every province and territory has added gender identity (and, in most provinces, gender expression) to their human rights acts.

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“C-16 enables a vulnerable group to take a rightful seat in Canadian society,” says Natalie Murray, a trans advocate.

That seat at the table didn’t come easy, even within the LGBTQ community.

Decades of campaigns to advance gay rights treated trans activists as embarrassments and political liabilities. Inclusion was a value the movement had to learn, and has to re-learn continually. While trans individuals were central to the of the famous 1969 Stonewall Riots (and were, arguably, the instigators), by 1973, they would be ejected from early gay rights activism.

That year, when trans pioneer Sylvia Rivera took to the stage at the Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in New York City, she was met with a chorus of boos from the assembled gay crowd. “Y’all better quiet down,” she lectured them, before launching into an admonishment of the gay movement for ignoring queen men and women stuck behind bars.

The United States saw an abrupt change in consciousness during the 2008 battle over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Despite the near-certainty of a presidential veto, gay and lesbian organizations and activists embraced a strategy of dropping trans people from the human rights bill, in order to try to pass it. It was another case of incrementalism, where trans human rights protections were not seen as “doable.” But the mis-step on the non-discrimination act not only failed to win over opponents, it also sparked an outcry among the grassroots LGBTQ movement.

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In Canada, the trans rights movement was something of the unwanted cousin who showed up at the doorstep one day, and who nobody could figure out what to do about. When marriage equality had been achieved in Canada, queer community publications declared that the “last great battle” had been won, and many of those campaigning for it promptly disappeared into suburbia. But the grassroots activism — and the attention garnered from the fight around the bill — eventually picked up enough momentum to galvanize the broader queer community to rally behind a cause.

A new scare emerged over fears it would threaten freedom of speech, by opening people up to litigation over pronoun use.

When the bill passed in the House of Commons for the first time, in 2011, sponsor and NDP Member of Parliament Bill Siksay seemed to recognize that the bill still faced many challenges.

“The change we seek will come. Justice will be done, and perhaps very soon the open and proud voice of transgender and transsexual Canadians will be heard loudly and clearly in this place,” Siksay told the House of Commons then.

Siksay, followed by fellow MP Randall Garrison — both openly gay men — brought the bill forward in every Parliament since 2005. Yet the push to extend human rights protections already enjoyed by most in Canada contended with hurdles at every turn.

It faced stall tactics, an attempted filibuster, procedural shenanigans, and a smear campaign alleging it would welcome child molestors into women’s bathrooms. Once, it was amended to legalize — instead of preventing — discrimination of trans people in public washrooms. Though Siskay and Garrison managed to get the bill through a vote in the House of Commons on several occasions, it was repeatedly delayed and killed in the Senate.

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The pushing eventually had an effect. Last year, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced C-16, which took Siksay’s original bill and made it government legislation, virtually ensuring its success. Even so, a new scare emerged over fears it would threaten freedom of speech, by opening people up to litigation over pronoun use.

Despite the moral panic, the bill flew through the House of Commons with a wave of support from every party: 248 Members of Parliament in favour, just 40 opposed. Despite further delays in the Senate, a dedicated majority eventually forced the bill to a vote on June 15, where it passed. 67 votes in favour, 11 opposed, three abstentions.

And now that it is law, those who toiled hard for it say its importance can’t be understated.

“Generally speaking, it gives voice to a silenced minority that simply wishes to live life without harassment and safely participate in all facets of society,” says Michelle Boyce, executive director of the Alphabet Community Centre. “It gives Crown attorneys more power to prosecute and get serious penalties for hate crimes against the trans community.”

“The explicit references to gender identity or expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act and hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code provide trans, two-spirit, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people with equal benefit of these laws and inclusion in much needed human rights education initiatives and hate crimes tracking and reporting,” Nicole Nussbaum, a lawyer with experience in gender identity and gender expression-related cases, explains.

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Medical access is wildly inconsistent around the country.

The federal bill extends the same provisions to various federally-regulated sectors — the public service, crown corporations, government-owned housing, fisheries, First Nations reserves, and federal jails — while also recognizing gender identity and expression as protected grounds in the Criminal Code.

There are, of course, still challenges that remain ahead.

Trans people exist at a crossroads of gender and sexuality, with neither fully encapsulating the sum of the challenges. Often, issues like poverty and racism can compound the marginalization exponentially. Violence disproportionately affects trans people of colour involved in sex work. Medical access is wildly inconsistent around the country, even for routine medical needs like, say, broken arms. Requirements for gender markers on government ID varies province-by-province. Options for shelters, housing, and support services are often more limited for trans people. Trans people are at particularly high risk for contracting HIV (three times the national average among new cases, in 2013) while outreach is still, usually, targeted towards gay men. The remaining challenges and limits to public acceptance have still resulted in a high incidence of suicide ideation.

The passage of the trans human rights bill marks the closure of the first chapter, in a longer tale about finding acceptance.