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In Search of Trans Refuge

Make Canada a safer option for trans people

The Daily uses the term “trans” in this editorial as an overarching term to include transgender as well as non-binary, genderqueer, and genderfluid people.

On January 26, Ontario trans activist Caitlin Glasson opened a petition urging the House of Commons to extend the right to claim asylum in Canada to trans people. The petition states that, across the world, the rights of trans people “to live as themselves are being restricted and removed.” Because of this, some trans people have resorted to flee their country of origin in order to seek asylum in countries that are safe. The Daily stands with Glasson and others who have signed the petition; Canada must affirm its status as a welcoming country for trans refugees.

The petition specifically addresses how trans rights have come under threat in the US and UK. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reported plans in November 2022 to end legal protections for trans people within the Equality Act, the country’s anti-discrimination law. In the US, as of March 2023, over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills have been proposed by several states. Multiple governors have additionally issued directives that violate the rights of trans youth. In 2023 alone, over 100 bills directly attacking trans human rights have been proposed by Republican state legislators. This staggering increase from recent years has been bolstered by egregious anti-trans rhetoric, such as the horrifying comments from The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles that took centre-stage at the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Both the UK and the US  have also experienced a stark increase in anti-trans violence in recent years. In 2021, the number of offences against trans people reached a record high in the UK, while the US recorded the greatest number of trans homicides in a single year to date. These disturbing statistics have led many trans people to fear for their safety and seek refuge in other countries. 

Critics of Glasson’s petition point to how trans people are already able to apply as refugees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While it is true that trans refugees are protected in Canada, the application process to apply as a queer refugee is deeply problematic. First, obtaining asylum as a queer refugee is very difficult; only around half of claimants in Canada are successful. Moreover, the application process itself reinforces ignorant perceptions of queer identities. When filing for refugee status, applicants are often required to “prove” their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, queer and trans refugees are encouraged to provide supporting documents that verify their “involvement with the LGBTI community,” or provide “letters from [past] romantic or sexual partners confirming [their] relationships.” These requirements perpetuate harmful expectations about what it means to be queer by assuming that gender identity and sexual orientation are defined by a person’s sexual history, as well as require a person to “out” themselves in order to seek asylum. This is especially harmful because it is likely that queer and trans individuals who cannot safely come out, would be the ones most likely to seek asylum. Clearly, our existing legislation is outdated and insufficient to  address this growing crisis of increased anti-trans violence. 

Regardless of whether the petition advocates for the improvement of already existing policies, it is clear that the Canadian government needs to rectify its shortcomings with regard to supporting trans people, internally as well as externally. It’s important to acknowledge that anti-trans violence is present here as well as abroad. Although we call on Canada to open its arms to refugees, significant efforts must be made to address systemic transphobia, notably in its healthcare system. Advocates say that more work needs to be done in order for existing laws to actually protect trans migrants from the US. American trans refugees are technically eligible for asylum in Canada, but the likelihood of any American refugee being approved is extraordinarily low. Of the 642 claims for refugee status made by US citizens in 2018, only two were approved

One thing the Canadian government can do to reinforce the safety of trans refugees is declare the US an “unsafe” country under the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The joint Canada-US agreement establishes both nations as safe places for refugees to seek asylum and limits claimants to receiving protection from the first safe country they find themselves in. This means that, unless qualified as an exception, Canada will not accept refugee claims from trans asylum-seekers who are in the US or who travel through the US to make a refugee claim in Canada. Declaring the US an unsafe country will give trans people a channel to remove themselves from what has become a dangerous space. Inaction from the Canadian government is especially hypocritical considering how they  describe its “proud history of providing protection to … [the] 2SLGBTQI+ community,” per their website. Denying protection to trans migrants from rampant anti-trans hate is antithetical to this “proud” history. 

The wave of anti-trans rhetoric, legislation, and violence we are seeing in the US and UK is not going anywhere anytime soon. Canada must take immediate action. In the meantime, you can help strengthen the voices trying to hold the government accountable by signing Glasson’s petition. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the Beaumont Society are resources available to the trans community in the US and UK, respectively. Support organizations that provide specialized services to queer refugees, like AGIR Montréal, or oppose the STCA, like the Canadian Council of Refugees. If you are a trans person attending McGill, The Union for Gender Empowerment, Queer McGill, and the Centre for Gender Advocacy list free resources and support systems on their websites.