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Kael McKenzie Didn’t Set Out to Be a Trailblazer — Now He’s Canada’s First Transgender Judge

His appointment comes at the end of a year that has seen both strides toward trans acceptance and higher rates of violence toward trans people worldwide.

by Hilary Beaumont
Dec 22 2015, 9:10pm

Jason Halstead/The Canadian Press

Before a Manitoba court named him Canada's first ever transgender judge, Kael McKenzie did his homework. In submitting his application, he knew he could make history — but that didn't prepare him for the deluge of media attention that came with the appointment.

Since he got the job last Thursday, the 44-year-old former lawyer and longtime LGBTQ rights advocate has made national headlines.

"I've never really set out to be a committee leader, or a role model or a trailblazer," he told VICE News. "I've tried always to just do the right things, and that's how I've led my life. And that's what I hope I can continue to do."

His appointment comes at the end of a year that has seen both strides toward trans acceptance and higher rates of violence toward trans people worldwide.

This year, Canada stopped requiring proof of sex reassignment surgery to change someone's gender on their passport, the US Military approved hormone therapy for Chelsea Manning, and Caitlyn Jenner came out as a trans woman on the cover of Vanity Fair, further spurring an ongoing conversation about trans identity.

Also in 2015, however, there were more transgender homicide victims in the US than any other year on record, according to a Human Rights Campaign report, and 90 reported murders of trans people worldwide, according to a Transgender Day of Remembrance site that tracks their deaths. And a study this year from Western University, in Ontario, found that, in Canada, 35 percent of trans people contemplated killing themselves over a year-long period, with 11 percent attempting suicide.

2015 has also seen a number of firsts for the trans community worldwide: Turkey opened its first shelter for trans people, India elected the country's first trans mayor, and of course McKenzie was appointed as a judge in Canada.

Related: 'Experts of Our Own Identity': Trans People Can Choose Their Legal Gender in Ireland Now

Before he began his legal career, McKenzie's experience in the military was pivotal in his decision to advocate for trans rights. He was 18 years old at the time, and publicly presented as a lesbian, though he privately identified as a man.

"When I was in the Canadian Forces, I was in during a time that was before sexual orientation had been added as a [form of] discrimination, and it was around that time that I really started to understand what some of the issues involving the LGBT community were."

"There was just a general sense of fear that you could be in trouble just for being who you are," he said.

In the Forces, he became involved with a committee for LGBTQ rights. Later, at the University of Manitoba, he helped out with a project that created LGBTQ safe spaces. And while with the Canadian Bar Association, he co-chaired the gender and sexual orientation conference.

McKenzie also advocated for Bill 18, which allowed Manitoba high school students to form gay-straight alliances. The bill passed in September, angering some religious groups who said it infringed on religious freedoms.

"Maybe that was the start of when I knew I had to do something more," he said of his time in the Forces, "but honestly I can't say I really set out to be an activist."

'There was just a general sense of fear that you could be in trouble just for being who you are.'

McKenzie didn't transition until after he became a lawyer.

It was in 2011 or 2012 when McKenzie announced his trans identity. He can't be sure of the year as these things often take time.

"It was becoming a lawyer that solidified that I needed to do something about it," he said. 

The masculine military atmosphere meant he didn't need to wear feminine clothing, but when he attended law school he felt added pressure to conform to what is expected of women.

"I couldn't do it anymore, it had to be done."

He was working at a small firm in Winnipeg when he made the decision and he remembers the partner's response: "You know Kael, I don't care if you're green as long as you're a good lawyer."

There were no hiccups. The firm sent out letters to McKenzie's clients and all of them were supportive.

Related: Elections Canada Is Accidentally Outing Trans People on Voter Cards

"It was very fortunate I could transition in the legal community and have such a positive experience with it."

McKenzie noted that the bench is supposed to reflect the people appearing before it.

"Diversity is valued," Manitoba's attorney general Gord Mackintosh, who appointed McKenzie, told CTV, "along with the other qualifications for advancement to the bench. We had a number of qualified candidates. The fact that Kael is also transgender is exciting."

"I really hope that it's not lost that I didn't get appointed just because I'm trans. It was certainly a meritorious appointment," McKenzie said. "I just happen to be the first trans judge."

"My hope is that one day this is not going to be newsworthy, and that when judges are appointed who happen to be transgender, it's going to be regular everyday occurrences, the same as any other marginalized group or equity group."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont