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Why reduce gender to a letter?

The fight for trans* rights in Quebec

When Akiko Asano brings her daughter Mat to their local clinic for a routine appointment, she’s never sure how they’ll be treated.

Once, Asano said, when Mat was seven years old, a new receptionist took Mat’s medical card, which had a little “M” marked down beside the sex designation. “You’ve given the wrong card,” the receptionist replied dismissively, “this card is for your son.”

Mat merely rolled her eyes, but Asano was anxious and frustrated. There was a line of people behind Asano in the office, but she explained anyways: Mat was female, as her name on the card indicated – it was just her body that was assigned male. “Oh,” the receptionist said. “So she’s intersex.”

“No,” Asano replied, frustrated. “She’s transgender. Physically she is male but psychologically she is female.” The receptionist’s only response before finally processing Mat’s information was, “That’s weird.”

Although gendered documents may seem inconsequential in day-to-day life to those whose assigned sex, gender, and self-identified gender match up, the little “F” or “M” glaring up from official identification can be the difference between a pleasant experience and a dangerous situation for trans* people.

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“[In Quebec], trans* people are structurally marginalized,” Gabrielle Bouchard, trans* advocacy coordinator at the Centre for Gender Advocacy, told The Daily. “There are laws in place that will have a negative impact for sure for all trans* people, regardless of the type of transition they want to make.”

That marginalization has severe consequences for the trans* community. In 2010, a study done by Trans Pulse found that 43 per cent of trans* Ontarians had attempted suicide at some point in their life. In Montreal, local women’s shelters made headlines last winter during a severe cold snap when it was revealed that they were turning trans* women away.

Article 71 of Quebec’s Civil Code states that to change one’s gender markers, an individual must have “successfully undergone medical treatments and surgical operations involving a structural modification of the sexual organs intended to change [their] secondary sexual characteristics.”

Currently, Ontario is the only province in Canada that doesn’t have a surgical requirement. In 2012, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled that requiring the surgery was discriminatory.

Although it varies, for trans* women, the required surgery is usually a vaginoplasty; for trans* men, a hysterectomy. “The only thing these two surgeries have in common is that, at the end of the day, you’re sterile,” Bouchard said. “To be clear, [these surgeries are] important, and life-saving, for a lot of people […] But right now we’re talking about a question of choice.”

Sex reassignment surgery (SRS) – which, when mandated by law, some activists call forced sterilization – has come under fire around the world for its implications. In February 2013, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) distributed a report calling for all countries and states to “outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances and provide special protection to individuals belonging to marginalized groups.”

Apart from being tantamount to forced sterilization, the surgeries required are also astoundingly expensive. In Quebec, even a name change can cost up to $500. Quebec’s health care system covers the cost of the SRS if individuals have two letters from different psychologists, in addition to a doctor’s letter, asserting that the individual suffers from gender dysphoria – currently classified as a mental disorder.

A simple letter might sound easy to get, but in reality requires a lot of time and money. Just for the letters from psychologists, Bouchard estimated that an individual would “need to go see them between five and 25 times at $100 a pop.”

Even if an individual has the required surgery, if they are not legally a Canadian citizen, “it doesn’t matter,” Bouchard said. One of the requirements stipulates that you must be a Canadian citizen in order to have your legal gender marker changed; this requirement does not exist in any other province outside Quebec. Permanent residents who identify as trans* and have had surgery are prevented from full integration into Quebec society.

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The third requirement of a minimum age of 18 years is especially problematic for kids like Mat. Mat socially transitioned, or began to live as a girl, when she was only three years old. In earlier years, the bullying was mostly teasing, but in middle school, it began to intensify.

Although Mat had been living “stealth” – essentially undercover as her preferred gender – for several years, Mat’s best friend accidentally let it slip that she was trans*. Classmates taunted her, telling her to pull down her pants to prove she was a real girl. The three-hour bus ride from her school to her Northern Quebec community became a nightmare.

After switching schools and even trying homeschooling, Asano and Mat moved to Montreal. Here, Asano began to meet with other parents of gender non-conforming or trans* kids for potlucks, picnics, and other informal meetings. Now, that once casual support group has blossomed into Gender Creative Kids.

Asano knows firsthand how important it is to abolish the minimum age to change the legal gender markers on her daughter’s identification. “When they’re young […] these kids don’t believe they’re trans*, they believe they are the other gender,” Asano said. “So it’s hard when they’re met up with resistance around them.”

“It’s like having a little girl who’s two years old, who says to you ‘I’m a girl’ – you don’t check her genitals to make sure she’s right.”

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In April 2013, the Quebec National Assembly began to debate Bill 35, which aims at modifying part of the Civil Code. Originally, only the requirement to publish one’s name in a local paper and La Gazette officielle du Quebec upon a name change or sex change was up for debate.

In May 2013, the Trans Committee of the Conseil Québécois LGBT presented a report to Quebec’s Minister of Justice and the Commission on Institutions, outlining recommendations to abolish the surgical, citizenship, and age requirements for a legal gender marker change.

When the bill was put up for debate, the Minister for Justice proposed amending it to abolish the surgical and age requirements as well. However, this was met with fierce opposition from the Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The bill and its proposed amendments were never put to a vote, and were ultimately shelved for possible discussion when the National Assembly reconvenes this fall.

In Bouchard’s opinion, the PLQ and CAQ “clearly showed their colours, their transphobia.” Although she admitted it was possible that the surgical requirement might still be abolished through the legislative process, she was adamant that the Centre keep fighting to abolish the age and citizenship requirements.

“Either way, we will have to go to court,” Bouchard said. “Because there’s no way that we will leave behind kids, teens, and people who are trying to make Quebec their home. […] So even if we win one small portion, we’re not going to leave those people behind.”

On August 11, the Centre submitted a discrimination complaint to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, alleging that the requirements for  changing a legal gender marker infringe on the rights of trans* people.

Although she was optimistic about the complaint, which will be either recognized or dismissed in a few weeks time, Bouchard noted that it is possible that it might be thrown out on technicalities.

In that case, the Centre and its allies are prepared to mount a legal challenge. A top human rights lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous at this time, has already agreed to take on the case pro bono. Bouchard has also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for potential administrative costs associated with a trial, as well as compensation for trans* people and allies volunteering their testimony.

It will be a long and drawn-out fight, but Bouchard and her allies are up for it. As for Asano and her daughter Mat, they are ready as well. “There is negative attention,” Asano said, referring to going public with Mat’s identity, “but at the same time [… these things] actually save people’s lives. [That] makes up for all the negative comments and backlash.”