While mainstream pop culture has begun embracing LGBTQ2+ people, the plight the community continues to face in B.C. and abroad leaves some questioning how far we’ve really come
Cover story: Not quite there
I was at home, getting ready to send this piece to Megaphone’s editor, when I found out about the shootings in Orlando. As someone who lived in southern Florida most of her childhood, the shootings hit very close to home. As a gay Latin woman, the news that someone had committed the largest mass shooting in the United States’ modern history in a gay bar on Latin night was a punch to the gut. The shooting was a reminder that while mainstream culture, predominantly in the entertainment industry, has become more embracing of LGBTQ2+ people and characters, there is still a long road ahead of us if we’re ever to overcome prejudice and lack of protection.
Sometimes it seems like for every step forward there is an equal if not greater push back to the starting line. Case in point, our southern neighbour has gone from having one of the best times so far—in terms of trans visibility in mainstream media, and legalizing same-sex marriage—to enacting the most anti-LGBTQ2+ bills in a single year in history. Not to mention, states without discrimination protection laws for LGBTQ2+ people currently outnumber those with protection—meaning the survivors of the shooting at Pulse nightclub could still get fired because of their sexual preference or gender identity.
Things are only slightly better in Canada: we’ve had marriage equality for about a decade, but as a country we have yet to amend our human rights code to include gender identity and gender expression.
Just a couple months ago, someone set fire to Canada’s only surgery clinic for trans people, and only a couple of weeks ago, a man was attacked on his way to a Vancouver vigil for the Orlando shooting. So while pride parades happen in Canada and the rest of the world, it’s an ideal, but hopefully not the only, time to remember the road that lies ahead—and most importantly, the people who are doing their best to get us there.
Paving the way for children everywhere
Tru Wilson is just like many Canadian 13-year-old girls: she’s excited about starting high school, she has a best friend, and she’s passionate about one day becoming a film director.
But unlike most 13-year-old girls living in B.C., Tru was assigned a male gender at birth. Outspoken and smart, Tru is one of the youngest trans activists in B.C., something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media. She was recently featured in Vancouver Magazine’s Power 50 list.
Years before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the pride flag in Parliament Hill and the federal government introduced a bill to amend Canada’s Human Rights Act to include both gender identity and gender expression, Tru successfully launched a human rights complaint against her then-school, Ladner Sacred Heart.
The complaint, which also included Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese, was eventually settled, paving the way for a new policy that was implemented in July 2014.
Now, thanks to Tru's complaint, transgender students must be called by the name and pronouns of their choosing, and they can wear uniforms and access bathrooms that match their gender identity.
But the policy came at a steep price for Tru.
“The biggest challenge that I've ever faced with being transgender is having to leave all my friends at Sacred Heart and not being able to talk to some of them anymore because of their parents.
Some of them couldn't talk to me because their parents didn't like my decision. That was pretty difficult,” Tru says.
Tru made the decision to transition in Grade 4. After years of knowing it, but not having a word for it, Tru came to the realization that she was transgender. She came out to her parents the summer before Grade 4 and started socially transitioning at home and in her extracurricular activities, but school would have to wait. “My mom took me to the store and we got my first girl shirt and my first skirt and my first tights, my first everything. And everywhere but at school I was a girl. But I would have to get up in the morning and put on the boys' uniform and walk to school pretending that I was someone else. And that didn't feel good,” she says.
Tru wanted to leave the school because she didn't feel accepted, but didn't want to leave her friends behind. So the nine-year-old tried to, in her own words, “deal with the fact that I couldn't wear the girls uniform. But it just made me depressed and angry and sad most of the time.”
This went on until the middle of November, which is when her parents realized through talks at the school that Tru was probably never going to be able to be herself during school hours. So Michelle Wilson, Tru’s mom, decided to pull her children out of school and find a new, more accepting school for them. This was also when the family filed the human rights complaint.
“It was more important to protect Tru and have her feel supported. Every day that she had to go to school pretending that she was a boy she was traumatized. It was two months of torture,” Wilson says.
‘What's between your ears’
Vancouver-based human rights lawyer barbara findlay handled Tru’s complaint and is currently in the process of setting hearing dates for three more such complaints focused on gender.
One of the complaints was filed against the Vital Statistics Agency in a bid to remove gender markers from birth certificates. It was filled on behalf of eight intersex and transgender people in B.C., as well as the Trans Alliance Society in November 2013.
“We want to remove them because every baby is assigned a gender when they're born and the difficulty with that is that gender is established not by what's between your legs but by what's between your ears. Your gender is defined by what your gender identity is,” findlay says.
There are two main problems with assigning gender at birth, according to findlay. The first is that sometimes doctors are going to get it wrong because children develop a gender identity at the age of four.
The second problem is that birth certificates only have two choices. Anyone whose gender identity doesn’t fit the gender binary can never be represented in this system.
“Since birth certificates are the document that follows you into the medical care system, the education system, and every other system, including passports, having a system where the government certifies a fact which they know will be wrong some of the times is unjustifiable,” findlay adds.
In 2015, B.C.’s health ministry issued a response to the complaint defending current policies and stating that gender markers on birth certificates were not
discriminatory. Additionally, some detractors of the bid to remove gender markers from birth certificates have argued that the markers serve a statistical purpose. findlay isn’t the only one trying to change the mind of the provincial government.
Recently, NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert introduced another private member’s bill to amend B.C.’s Human Rights Code—for the fourth time since 2010. But, both Suzanne Anton, attorney general, and Premier Christy Clark have already said they won’t be supporting the bill.
“There are a number of people in the BC Liberal caucus who hold certain views against transgender people, argue they don't exist or that they don't deserve protection.
I also understand some BC Liberals don't think we need a law because they don’t think we should be explicit in protecting transgender people,” Chandra Herbert says.
B.C. is one of the few places left in all of Canada lacking such protection.
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and the Northwest Territories all have laws that explicitly protect gender identity or expression.
“How can you protect your rights if you don't know you have them or read them in the law? I think most Canadians want to be inclusive of transgender people and don't hold transphobic views.
Unfortunately, it seems the government is bending over backwards to please social conservatives who are fundamentally anti-transgender,” Chandra Herbert says.
And findlay agrees. She says that even though trans people are already protected under the grounds of sex, nobody knows that except lawyers, lawmakers, and law enforcers.
“Human rights protections that nobody knows about are not that useful,” findlay explains. “And politically speaking, it's really important because it not only shows that our government does not support discrimination against trans people, but that we are against it as a society.”
Laws can make a difference
If comment sections are indicative of anything, Canadians were horrified when North Carolina passed a “bathroom law” that required trans people to use bathrooms that matched their birth certificates.
But Canadians are quick to forget that this isn’t the first time an amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act has been proposed. Back in 2011, a similar bill was introduced, eventually making its way to the senate only to be struck down in 2015 after Senator Don Plett from the Conservative Party introduced a bathroom clause that had similar characteristics to the North Carolina bill. Morgane Oger, chair of the Trans Alliance Society thinks the clause was a poison pill. “They were doing whatever it took to kill the bill,” Oger says, adding that bathroom laws are nothing but fear mongering for political gain.
“The person who is usually most afraid in a public bathroom is the trans person,” Oger says. “And it's important to remember that when I talk about transgender people, I'm also talking about children and teenagers, and I'm also talking about transgender moms like me. I have a daughter, I take her to the bathroom and I need to be able to look out for her.”
As head of the Trans Alliance Society, a group that does advocacy work and provides support for gender minorities in B.C. and Canada, Oger is determined to do everything she can to ensure the bill makes it into law.
Unfortunately, Trudeau’s more progressive government can’t guarantee anything.
“The senate has been populated in the last 10-plus years under the Harper government by socially conservative senators who are the more likely to question or oppose this legislation,” Oger notes.
This is why Oger travelled to Ottawa when the bill was introduced. She met with a Conservative MP to discuss a strategy for creating more acceptance among rural social conservatives. It’s also where she learned Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservative Party, supported the bill.
If the federal amendment becomes law, gender expression, and gender identity will be on the same level as other enumerated categories, including sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. It will also be taught in school, and most importantly, it will be instrumental in creating new policies that are more inclusive of trans people.
Transgender and gender variant people face some of the highest rates of violence and discrimination in our society. A recent national Ipsos poll found that while 95 per cent of cisgender Canadians (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) say they feel safe in their local community, only seven in ten transgender Canadians feel the same.
Another study conducted in Ontario found that 20 per cent of trans people who participated in the study had been physically or sexually assaulted for being trans, and another 34 per cent had been verbally threatened or harassed but not assaulted.
Show me the data
Not only do we not know how many trans people live in our province, we don’t know for sure how many trans people have experienced discrimination or violence.
“There is a number of issues with the numbers,” explains Const. Dale Quiring, the Vancouver Police Department’s LGBTQ2+ liaison officer and head of an initiative focused on Vancouver's trans community.
The number 1 issue is that hate crimes against gay and trans people are lumped into one category of hate crime based on sexual orientation. And those are the numbers the VPD sends to Statistics Canada.
An amendment to the federal Human Rights Code would mean hate crimes committed against someone because of their gender identity or expression would be counted separately. This would help keep a tally, which Const. Quiring says is needed.
Then there is the issue of hate crimes and incidents being under-reported.
“When you talk to people in the community, the feedback from transgender people that I've spoken to is that there have been incidents that are not reported. And it's not just mistrust for the police, there are other reasons to avoid reporting,” Quiring says. According to numerous trans rights advocates, those reasons likely include not having adequate gender markers on ID.
‘Complicated and costly’
Brenna Bizanson is the communications coordinator at PACE Socety, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and offering assistance to current and former sex workers.
According to Bizanson, trans people are over-represented in sex work; 30 to 40 per cent of the people who access services at PACE are non-binary.
Suzanne Kilroy, a Megaphone Magazine vendor and contributor, once went to PACE for help. Now she volunteers for the organization.
“Being two-spirited is not a decision you make one day, you're born that way,” Suzanne explains. Two-spirited usually refers to an Aboriginal person who has both a masculine and feminine spirit. “PACE turned my life around 12 years ago. I was weighing 40 pounds because of heroin. And I cleaned up my life, I got my kids back and my family and my husband came back too. I've been with him for 20 years,” she adds.
Suzanne interacts with a lot of two-spirited women at PACE. “Some of them are sex workers and some of them are addicted still, some work on the street, some are homeless, some have mental issues,” she explains.
PACE recently launched the Gender Self-Determination Project to assist trans people, living in poverty in the DTES, in changing gender markers on their IDs.
Bizanson is no stranger to the process of changing gender markers on one’s ID.
As a trans woman she’s navigated the system both in B.C. and Nova Scotia.
“I think it's much more complicated in B.C. to change your gender markers,” she says. “When I moved back here, I wanted to have my gender markers changed on my MSP, and I'll be really honest, I haven't gotten B.C. IDs. I still use my NS identification because the process is that much more complicated.”
Bizanson has been living in B.C. for a year and a half, and recognizes she’s coming from a place of privilege. Not only are most of her IDs correct, she has stable employment and housing.
“People living in poverty or social housing, and who have to deal with the government to have certain needs met, for those folks, having the incorrect name and gender markers that they don't identify with is a process of daily trauma,” Bizanson says. “We have members and staff who have decided not to access health-care services when they've really been needed because of how traumatizing it can be to hear your former name said when you access health-care services.
“We’ve even had staff members pass away because they didn’t seek treatment for otherwise treatable illnesses.”
Not so easy in Victoria
Still, in many ways life is much easier for trans people in Vancouver than it is in the rest of the province according to ChrYs Tei, the executive director of Rainbow Health Co-operative in Victoria. Tei says the regional health authorities could do more for trans communities outside of Vancouver.
That's partly why she started the group.
“One of the things that Vancouver doesn't grasp is that it actually has a pretty decent trans health program through VCH [Vancouver Coastal Health]. In the rest of the province, we have nothing,” she says.
The co-op's focus is to assist trans people and their families through a gender wellness program. Tei sits in on most of the support meetings the co-op offers. “The basic problem that the trans community across the province faces is the disconnection with reliable information about what to do with what they're experiencing in their lives,” Tei says.
Last year, Tei sat in the recommendations committee of a trans health program initiated by B.C’s Ministry of Health. “This is the outcome of a lot of trans activism through out the years, [the ministry] created a recommendation committee with doctors and community members, we met for six months and the program has been developing since October 2015,” she says.
The Trans Care BC program operates under the Provincial Health Services Authority, it aims to expand health services to transgender communities across the province by ensuring gender-affirming surgeries and assistance are available in different locations. It also aims to create a support network, an element that Tei is particularly invested in. “Trans people have navigated the medical system because we're trying to access very special care and we navigate that through word of mouth. The provincial trans health program recognizes that and is trying to create a network of peer support groups across the province,” Tei says.
B.C. is the first province in Canada to create a provincial system to support transgender health. But as B.C.’s pride month has arrived, Tei can’t help feeling like trans people are still an afterthought.
No parade for who?
It’s no coincidence that the theme for this year’s Vancouver Pride Parade is “Better Together”. With an operating budget of $800,000 in cash, and in-kind contributions rounding them up to $1 million, Vancouver’s parade is the largest in Western Canada. Although smaller in size, Victoria’s pride parade has steadily grown in the last 26 years.
Like last year, both July parades have agreed to have all participants sign a pledge committing to support the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in both the federal and the B.C. human rights codes. Meaning we might not get to see Premier Christy Clark in either of the parades this year.
Additionally, the Vancouver Pride Parade is unveiling its brand new Trans Activist Award in honour of Kimberly Nixon and will be adding this award to their annual Legacy Awards. The award is meant to acknowledge a trans individual who has made a significant contribution to the LGBTQ2+ community.
Kimberly Nixon is a trans activist known for a 12-year legal battle with the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter.
In 1995, Kimberly filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal after the shelter told her she would not be allowed to volunteer because she was not born a woman. In 2000, the Tribunal sided with Kimberly, but the Supreme Court of British Columbia repealed the verdict.
Even though Nixon didn’t win, the case created an important milestone. During the trial Rape Relief tried to argue that the code did not include trans people, and it was during this case that it was established that transgender people were covered under the ground of sex.
Nixon’s story and many more like it are the reason the Vancouver Pride Society created the award. For Andrea Arnot, the events director, it came down to providing opportunities for transgender people to have positive recognition.
“If one reads the comments section on any article posted about trans people or transgender rights, it is both horrifying and terrifying. In Canada, we have made strides towards changing laws and social culture to be more inclusive, but for trans people, their everyday life experiences indicate that more work needs to be done,” she says.
But remembering that we are all humans beings with many of the same fears and desires could go a long way. If not, ask Tru Wilson.
“If anyone reading this is a mother or father of a transgender child, the best thing you can do is support them and love them for how amazing they are because if they're any age, they're still your child and they're still a big part of your family,” Tru says. “We're still human beings and we need all the love that everybody else needs.
“Love makes the world go around, let's keep that up.”
If you’re a Megaphone magazine reader living in the West End you might already know Megaphone vendor and writer Stephen Scott. He’s a happy guy that likes making people laugh. What you might not know, unless you ask him, is that Stephen is also a gay man.
Like many LGBTQ2+ people in our province, family acceptance was, and continues to be, a big issue for Stephen.
“Family was a big challenge for me in my life, loss of my family. They didn't accept me, I was rejected because I was gay,” Stephen says.
Originally from a farming village east of Montreal, Stephen started calling Vancouver home 15 years ago. And it is in this city where he’s found new family and friends.
“I feel very accepted in Vancouver, it's the best place to be as a gay man. It feels like a big family,” he says. “My family is my customers.”
But things haven’t always been easy in Vancouver. Stephen has faced numerous issues, including homelessness. It’s no secret that LGBTQ2+ youth are more likely to face homelessness than the general population. Some studies show 20 per cent of homeless youth in Vancouver identify as LGBTQ2+, other studies bring the estimate up to 40 per cent.
This means there are at least twice as many LGBTQ2+ youth in shelters and the street than there are in the overall population. When we take into account those who are sleeping on a friend’s couch or those who choose not to come out to volunteers conducting surveys, chances are we are looking at greater numbers.
Additionally, according to another study conducted by the Williams Institute in UCLA, nearly seven in ten LGBTQ2+ homeless youth say that family rejection is a major factor contributing to homelessness.
This is why it’s so important to find a sense of belonging, something Scott says he found in Vancouver.
“Having a community is very important. Some cities, they don't care about you, people here are more accepting. They're more supportive,” says Stephen.
Don’t miss out on saying hi to Stephen, be it in the West End or at this year’s Vancouver Pride Parade, which he says he’s likely to attend.
“I've been on floats a couple of times for Rainbow Church. I don't know if I'll be in any floats this year, maybe Megaphone will have one! If they do that, of course I'll be there.”