Needed: identity, appearance safeguards

Trans protections are important for more than just trans people

The prorogation of Parliament has wiped all the government’s bills off the agenda. However, private member’s bills remain on the table. One such bill, C-389, introduced by member of Parliament Bill Siskay of the NDP, would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of protected categories under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code of Canada. Canada needs to pass this bill.

The “gender identity” provision would provide non-discrimination protections in housing and employment, along with hate crimes protections, to anyone who knows that they are a certain gender, even if it does not match with their birth sex. This kind of provision usually applies to transsexuals. “Gender expression” is much broader, however, and includes dress, speech, and other behaviours that have associations with gender – this provision applies to a much larger group.

Such protections are necessary at the federal level because out of Canada’s provinces and territories, only the Northwest Territories currently has “gender identity” protections. Right now, transsexuals may have coverage under “sex” or “gender” classifications through court rulings. However, unfavourable judges could limit the extent of the protections that these rulings offer, since, at present, there is no explicit safeguard for transsexuals. Adding “gender identity” to these laws would provide them with that.

Furthermore, other trans people, including some people who cross-dress, those who don’t identify as male or female, and many others, lack even court rulings prohibiting discrimination against them. Adding “gender expression” would cover them as well.

Some might say that in this political environment, it doesn’t make sense to try to address this issue because it affects only a small number of people. While I hold more that we should not let injustices persist for any group simply because of its size, this objection underestimates the number of people Bill C-389 will affect, both because of our demographic statistics on trans people and because the bill would also affect people who are not trans.

We just don’t know how many people are trans. Often, people use estimates of how many people have had sex reassignment surgery (SRS), but this underestimates the transsexual population, for at least three reasons: many people cannot afford SRS; others have travelled abroad, for example to Thailand, where the surgery is affordable; and others might not report the information. Furthermore, by looking only at SRS, these statistics ignore all of the trans people who have no interest, including some who cross-dress or identify with neither gender. As a result, the trans population is much higher than people think.

But this bill wouldn’t just cover trans people. C-389 would also cover queer people who don’t identify as trans, who may think they’re protected by sexual orientation non-discrimination laws. However, without “gender expression” protections, it’s possible to argue that “sexual orientation” only includes a person’s attractions, not their behaviour or appearance – even though many people who aren’t straight are also gender-variant.

This bill even covers people who wouldn’t identify as queer at all. Even some straight cis people could face discrimination in housing or employment – or even hate crimes – for behaving in some way that is not strictly in accordance with their gender, including “masculine” women and “feminine” men. For example, in June 2008, Stacey Fearnall, an Ontario woman who shaved her head to raise money for cancer research, was fired from her job as a waitress. This may not seem like a gender issue on the surface. However, since her appearance was the basis for her firing, it’s not hard to imagine that her boss fired her because she appeared too “masculine” and might turn away customers. This bill would prevent the unjust firing of people like Fearnall, too.

Our society often thinks that trans issues don’t relate to cis people’s lives. However, a successful trans bill would not only aim to make a society where trans people can live their own lives, but also enable them to defend the freedom of others to express themselves. We need to realize that bias against gender-variance harms people regardless. It doesn’t matter whether a boy in elementary school is cis and straight; if he doesn’t show an interest in “masculine” activities, others will ridicule him. As long as we allow any such stigmas to exist, narrow, socially-delineated boundaries will limit the behaviour of all people.

So, please – write your MP, the party leaders, and newspapers. We need to mobilize now to pass Bill C-389 when Parliament returns.

Quinn Albaugh writes in this space every week. Tell ’em what you think: