The T in LGBt
“If Pride is a loving family, members of the trans community are the strange cousins,” says Dawna Armstrong. She reminisces back to 1996, the year she was the first trans-woman to have taken on her employers in a legal battle for human rights violation, and win. “This set precedence,” she says, “they then added ‘gender-identity’ to Canada’s standard against workplace discrimination.”
Nearly 20 years later, the Trans community is still perpetually fighting discrimination on the basis of their gender identity on almost every front.
For *Dana Winters, a young woman with a Trans past, not even a supposed safe space like the Pride Parade Toronto in 2015 was free of transphobic sentiments. After an argument about group cheers, she was bombarded with threats and transphobic conduct.
“[One of them came up to me and said] ‘Since you are a man, I’m allowed to punch you right?’”.
It is no secret that Trans issues and persons have long suffered being tokenized, marginalized or outright rejected by society and law. But this discrimination also seeps into the basic services in place for all people, bringing into question their access to fundamental human dignities.
Numbers and Hard evidence
** It is important to know the distinction between transsexual from transgender to discuss these issues. Trans is used in this article to refer to the entire spectrum. Click here for more clarification. **
When it comes to trans persons, Canada still has a blind spot in it’s watch for protecting vulnerable populations.
According to Terrence Rodriguez, a social worker, trans-man, and founder of the LGBTQ+ group RexPride that works to support LGBTQ+ youths of his Toronto locality, the desolate state of Trans acceptance can be attested to a vicious cycle of systemic failure.
People at large demands justification of Trans identities before they take their issues seriously, but not many scientific studies or statistics are conducted because of the lack of public interest.
The few studies done in Canada have found that half of the trans population in Canada live in poverty with an annual income below $15000, 1 in 5 transgender people in Canada is need or are at risk of needing homeless shelter assistance, and 74 percent school going Trans children face at least verbal harassment. This clearly indicates they are starkly worse off even when compared to the rest of the LGBTQ+ community.
More tellingly, forty-three percent of the transgender population in Ontario has attempted suicide at some point, attributed to feelings of shame and isolation that arises from inescapable systemic discrimination.
Transitioning has proved to greatly reduce risk of suicide and mental health vulnerability, but transphobic harassment and assault is about all throughout.
Canada has no federal law protecting Trans persons from hate crimes, unlike countries like USA.
The psychiatric perspective and gray areas
Medical professionals are polarized in their opinions on Transgenderism.
Some, like Dr. Joseph Berger, a prominent figure of Psychiatry in Toronto, maintain that from a medical and scientific perspective there is no such thing as a “transgendered” person – and that it is simply the manifestation of a mental illness. In a statement discouraging the ‘Bathroom-Bill’ advocating Trans rights and recognition, Berger famously said that body modification and hormone therapy partaken by Trans persons is a form of abuse, and explained that the right chromosomes, having an ovary, the ability to ovulate and bear children is what makes woman, and producing sperm a man – things trans men or women cannot procure.
All of the persons interviewed believe this line of thought, and the public’s perception that transgenderism is something perverse to protect children from is what has prevented Federal Laws for Trans equality and protection to successfully come into place in Canada. Many think this seeps into social and medical prejudice, which often flourishes and finds validation in lack of legislation.
Furthermore, transgenderism used to be classified as ‘gender identity disorder’ by the DSM, the bible of abnormal psychiatry. In 2012, distress arising from gender identity was reclassified as ‘gender dysphoria’. Psychiatrists maintain gender dysphoria is a mental illness that not all Trans people suffer from.
Yet many view the inclusion of gender dysphoria in the DSM as fundamentally transphobic. Dr. Mark Dupere, a Toronto based physician specializing in Trans surgery tells me “I do not think it belongs [in the DSM or other psychiatry textbooks and] over time, it will be removed.”
Additionally, normality in the western psychiatric sphere is attuned to societal norms, which are in turn influenced by a multitude of other factors.
To illustrate, Homosexuality too was classified as a mental illness in the DSM until 1973. Looking back, homophobia and criminalization of homosexual relationships became the norm because of the worldwide influence of Abrahamic religions. Before then, it was widely accepted in many prosperous cultures.
Similarly, other societies have held vastly different views on gender and are much more accepting of transgenderism. One example is Native American culture where Trans or ‘two spirit’ persons were recognized as a third gender and believed to be a blessing to the community. The Zumi, for example, believed gender is not ascertained by biology, and develops when a child was 3 to 4 years old.
Thus, supporters pose the question: Does bias of psychiatry towards western societal constructs trump the lived experiences of millions of people around the world?
Even if one subscribes strongly to the ‘mental illness’ theory, there is yet no known ‘treatment’ for gender dysphoria or transsexuality other than transitioning.
Trans identifying persons and statistics attest that their identity stays with them their whole lives, no matter the ‘treatments’ received. Shoshana, who is a senior Trans-woman and transitioned very late in life, wishes she could have in her youth.
“But at least now,” she says, “I can die a woman.”
The reality of medical services
Transgender and Transsexual transitioning services are covered by the government of Ontario if the person receives treatment through select clinics. Until recently, The Center of Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH) was the only place for government insured transitioning services in Canada. After controversy over practice of conversion therapy at CAMH, reports of mistreatment of trans-persons, complaints of years long wait-times for appointments, and a few lawsuits about coverage and other issues, the Ontario government announced at the end of June 2015 it will be expanding this list of insured clinics.
Mica*, a student at OCAD, began transitioning a year ago. They did not know the word transgender when growing up, but had always identified as a boy regardless, and also led a healthy, happy life. ‘It’s a very different story from what you hear. I was always mentally stable. I wasn’t depressed or angry, but I was still Trans.’
However, Mica’s supportive doctor advised them to hyperbolize their distress and match the stereotypical narrative, in order to get recognized as Transgender and approved for transitioning in Ontario. Medical professionals, Mica says, are told to allow transitioning as a last resort of sorts, only brought to the table when there is no hope of their patient being cisgender.
Thus twisting the truth was the only option for Mica to be able to transition, although they choose to pay for their surgeries entirely out of pocket, forgoing CAMH because of the disfavorable reviews that they received from friends and lengthy wait-list.
‘‘[The stereotypical checkboxes for trans recognition and transitioning] reduces our identity to something that needs to come from a place of upset. This is not true and is not helping anyone, them or us,’’ they said.
As someone involved in social work, Terrence however does sympathize with the rigid standards of distress Trans persons need to showcase in order to be allowed transitioning, despite the shortcomings. Since transitioning can be government insured, taxpayers will want that sort of justification as the number of people seeking treatment grows exponentially.
“I think [treating it as a checkbox of symptoms] is best until the public perspective on trans people changes,” he says.” It will take a while to get there.”
In a separate incident, while getting a hysterectomy, Terrence had to explain to a disbelieving CAMH nurse while under surgical anesthesia how being a transgender man getting his uterus removed works. He considered legal action against the incompetency he witnessed, but decided against it.
“Medical staff really need to be trained and informed,” he exclaims.
His experience mirrored that of many others who recount multiple incidents of medical professionals not believing their officiated gender identities, questioning it without reserve, and embarrassing them publicly. Yet again ahead of Canada, USA implemented a nationwide pilot program in training medical professionals in trans issues last month.
CAMH did not respond to email requests for comments.
Support and acceptance
For Anne Creighton, mother of a genderqueer university student and president of Toronto’s Parents, Families and Friends of the LGBTQ* Community, battling society’s misgivings with Transgender youths and children has become a tireless mission. Although the organization was founded decades ago to foster acceptance of homosexuality, they have since expanded to aiding of the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum. 80 per cent of those that seek help come for Transgender issues.
Anne notes a massive change in familial response: more than ever before, younger parents are choosing not to constrict their children with gender roles, and are supportive of them identifying as Trans. “[Parents, Families and Friends of the LGBTQ* Community] made one of the largest contingents of the Trans March this year”, she tells me.
She believes this is a radical shift and will lead to widespread trans-acceptance in due time. She also feels strongly about institutions like CAMH, which she believes are harming trans acceptance.
Terrence too believes with enough advocacy and education, things may look up. His group REX PRIDE is adding to the wave of change by spreading awareness of trans issues. He and his organization is now working towards informational and training programs for segments of the Toronto Police.
“It’s not so hard to be respectful of other people and their identities, if one can be open-minded and trust in ‘live and let live’.” Says Terrence. “Trans people are not a threat to society. We are just people who want to be happy, same as everyone else.”
The University of Toronto has safe spaces for Trans individuals such as The Centre for Women and Trans People and LGBTOUT. A map of gender neutral bathrooms around campus can be found here.
*Name changed per request
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that one of the subjects, identified here with a pseudonym, was a student at Ryerson University. The Varsity regrets the error.
Editor’s note (January 30, 2016): This article has been updated from an earlier version to account for misused terminology, specifically the use of the word “transgendered” when “genderqueer” was more appropriate. Portions of a quotation have also been removed after they were published in error. The Varsity regrets these oversights and errors.