Transgender Human Rights FAQ: A Global Deficit


A conversation between two UBC students, overhead on the grassy knoll…

Student A: Did you hear about the woman, Jenna Talackova, who was recently disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada pageant because she is transgender (HuffPost)? 

Student B: Yes, I heard about that this morning.

SA: It is an interesting story, but I don’t think I fully understand what it means to be transgender.

SB: Being transgender can mean different things for different people, but it most often refers to an individual who experiences a disconnect between their internally perceived gender and their physical sex.  Gender identity describes one’s internal sense of being male, female, or perhaps something else, while one’s physical sex refers to the biologically male or female body they were born into.  For transgender individuals, there is an incongruency between their gender identity and biological sex (PFLAG).

SA: I see, so a transgender individual may have an internal sense of being female, but their physical body is that of a male?

SB: That’s right.  It could also be a person who perceives themselves as male while living in a female body, or a person who does not fit neatly into either the male or female category, thus they “trans”cend gender.

SA: Interesting.  So what can transgender folks do about this incongruency in their identities?

SB: Well that really depends on the individual.  Some transgender people begin a physical transition in order to align their physical body with how they feel on the inside.  Often this will involve hormone treatments that masculinize or feminize their bodies, depending on their gender identity, and many transpeople opt to have surgeries which bring their physical bodies more in line with their gender identity.  It is important to note that there are also many transgender individuals who do not choose hormones or surgery in their transition process, and that all of these paths are equally valid.

Through these treatments most transgender people are seeking to alleviate a sense of body and gender “dysphoria.”  Gender dysphoria is a psychological term used to describe the feelings of pain, anguish, discomfort, and anxiety which occur as a result of the mismatch between a transperson’s gender identity and their physical sex (PFLAG).  Dysphoria is often heightened by the pressures the transgender person experiences from family, friends, and society as a whole, to conform conventional gender norms with which they do not identify (PFLAG).  The goal of physical transition is usually to help a transgender person feel more at home in their body and in their gender expression.

SA: I think I understand a little bit more about what it means to be a transgender person.  I know that we were speaking early about Jenna Talackova, who is a Canadian transgender woman, but I’m curious, are there transgender people all over the world?

SB: Certainly! There have been studies done all over the world which describe the experiences of transgender people.  In fact, communities in many countries have different names for transgender people, such as the hijras in India (Gurvinder, 1), and kathoey in Thailand (Nemoto, 210).  There are also many transgender people world-wide sharing their transition stories in online forums such as YouTube.  For example, the ‘FTM UK Official Collab Channel’ on YouTube is a site where female-to-male transgender people from the U.K. upload and share videos describing all aspects of their transition experience (FTM UK).  However, while countries and communities throughout the world have different names, laws, and support-systems for transgender people, trans people face a great deal of discrimination, both locally and globally.

SA: You spoke of different laws and support systems for transgender people.  I’m curious, would the experience of Jenna Talackova here in Canada be similar to the experience of a transgender person in another part of the world with regard to support and legal protection?

SB: That is a difficult question to answer because even transgender people within the same country can experience very different levels of support and legal protection depending on their proximity to urban areas and support systems (Egale 2012).  Furthermore, every country in the world has different attitudes towards, and laws protecting/discriminating against, transgender people.  Typically, transgender people in the Global North experience more support than do transgender people in the Global South.  What is important to note is that transgender individuals fall under the category of “sexual minorities” – a group that has long been discriminated against globally.  Some countries are moving to create laws to protect sexual minorities such as lesbians and gay men, however, transgender individuals are still overwhelmingly legally unprotected on a global level (ILGA, 2012).  Due to widespread discrimination and oppression, and a lack of concrete legal protection, trans-rights are a global issue.

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The conversation continues…

SA: It sounds like life could be really difficult for transgender people in other parts of the world.  What is it typically like for transgender people here in Vancouver?

SB: Again, this is difficult to answer because every transgender person has to deal with their own personal and familial situation, but I can definitely outline some groups and support systems that are available to transgender people here in Vancouver.  In 2003 Vancouver Coastal Health launched its Transgender Health Program to meet the needs of transgender people and their family and loved ones in B.C.  This program facilitates drop-in groups for transgender individuals and their loved ones, provides information on where one can find transgender health professionals, and provides many resources on trans-related information and support (VCH).  There are also several youth-specific programs such as CampOUT – a four day summer camp run through UBC for transgender, queer, two-spirited, and allied youth.  This camp provides support, resources, and community-building activities for transgender youth in Vancouver and B.C. (CampOUT).  For adult transgender people there are many support groups that meet throughout each month, and information on these night can be found at the Transgender Health Clinic (VCH).

SA: Wow, it sounds like there is a lot of support for transgender people here in Vancouver.  Is it true that because of this transgender people here typically have an easy time being transgender?

SB: I wish I could answer yes, however, recent Canadian stats prove that being a transgender person is still incredibly difficult.  In 2011 Egale Canada, an organization created to fight for the equality of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community in Canada, released the first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools.  The report found that 90% of trans youth hear transphobic comments daily or weekly from other students, and 37% of trans students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their gender expression (Egale, 2012).  This means that more than one in four transgender students in Canada is physically harassed or assaulted because their expression of their gender is not congruent with societal norms.  Furthermore, 49% of trans students reported an experience of sexual harassment in school in the last year.  These statistics culminate in the fact that more than three-quarters (78%) of trans students indicate feeling unsafe in some way at school (Egale, 2012).  What these stats reveal is that despite some support and resources available to transgender people, the environment in Canada is still hostile and discriminatory towards transgender individuals.

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SA: Wow, I can’t believe that an entire group of Canadian citizens is suffering discrimination in this way and I didn’t even realize it.  I suppose it is mostly due to a lack of information.  I’m wondering, what kinds of laws and policies does Canada have in place to protect transgender people?

SB: It is an interesting time to be asking that question, as just last year Bill C-389 was passed in the House of Commons; however, because an election was called it was never able to go before the Senate and therefore did not become law.  This Bill would have amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination, just the same as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation etc. (Parliament of Canada).

SA: Are you saying then that transgender individuals are not explicitly protected from discrimination under Canadian law?

SB: Yes, that’s correct.  Unlike sexual orientation, which as seen above is explicitly stated as prohibited grounds for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, the experience of being transgender is, at best, only protected under an analogous ground.  This means that being transgender is not explicitly protected as an enumerated ground, like race and sex are; however, because transgender individuals often identify as either men or women, any discrimination against them based on their sex would be illegal under the Act.  Therefore being transgender could, in some contexts, be protected (West Coast LEAF).  However, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, this leaves transgender people very vulnerable under the law in Canada, and many believe that until gender identity and gender expression are explicitly written into the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, transgender people will continue to lack the freedom and equality afforded other Canadian citizens.

SA: Does the province of B.C. have any provincial laws that protect transgender individuals?

SB:  Yes, transgender individuals are protected provincially in B.C. under the B.C. Human Rights Code under Sex.  This is similar to what we spoke of a minute ago with regard national laws as laid out by the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code; however, in B.C. ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’ are not simply analogous grounds.  Transgender experience is actually protected in B.C. through precedence (Human Rights Code, Ch. 210).  What this means is that a case involving discrimination against a transgender individual was taken to the B.C. Supreme Court and a decision was reached that this type of discrimination is a prohibited ground under Sex.  After the B.C. Supreme Court makes a ruling such as this, a precedence is set and now it is law, despite not being explicitly written into the B.C. Human Rights Code (Weast Coast LEAF).  This means that for all future cases involving discrimination against a transgender individual in British Columbia, lawyers and judges will look to the case where the Supreme Court of B.C. ruled this type of discrimination prohibited under the ground of Sex, and that ruling will be treated as existing law (West Coast LEAF).

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SA: It seems that there are some law in Canada that protect transgender individuals, but that there are still gaps in their legal protection.  What do you think should, and can, be done about this?

SB: Although Bill C-389 died before it could pass the Senate, a similar Bill was introduced in September of 2011.  Sponsored by Randall Garrison of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Bill C-279 would again seek to have ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ written into the Canadian Human Rights act and the Criminal Code in an effort to promote and protect transgender rights nationally (Parliament of Canada).  I think that the passage of this bill would be a fundamentally transformative event in the realm of trans-rights in Canada, and as such, we should do everything we can to help speed its passage.

SA: That sounds like a good idea, but didn’t you say earlier that in B.C. transgender rights are protected under the B.C. Human Rights Code?

SB: Yes, you’re absolutely right, however, there are still many reasons why it is important for us to continue to work for a nationally recognized equality.  When the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is amended to include more prohibited grounds of discrimination, in this case, ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’, it becomes a tool for the protection of transgender people in all of the provinces and territories in Canada – even the ones who, unlike B.C., have not yet explicitly protected transgender individuals under their provincial human rights code.  Once the Supreme Court of Canada makes a decision to amend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canada Human Rights Code, or the Criminal Code, it becomes a nationally binding law, forcing provinces to abide by its terms.

Another important reason to continue fighting for nationally-recognized transgender rights is the social and cultural gains to be made for transgender folks from such a recognition.  Changing Canadian law to promote the greatest equality is one important step towards creating a more equal society, one where transgender youth are not subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual harassment simply for being themselves.  Government recognition of equality is one step towards social and cultural recognition of equality.

One last reason it why it continues to be important to fight for nationally-recognized transgender equality centres on the idea of healthcare.  Once transgender individuals have full and equally recognized equality, it becomes easier to access necessary healthcare and medical treatments.  For example, in B.C. transgender sex-reassignment surgeries are covered under the Medical Service Plan of B.C.  This means that transgender people have access to life-affirming surgeries that would possibly be otherwise unattainable due to the high costs, but this is not true nationwide, and even in B.C. the waitlists are very long.

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SA: You’ve outlined some strong reasons as to why Bill C-279 is an incredibly important bill, and why its passage is so important to transgender Canadians.  What can we do to support its passage through parliament?

SB: We could write letters to our Members of Parliament urging them to support this bill, and support its swift movement through Parliament.  But the most important thing we can do involves not only raising awareness about the bill through addressing our MP’s, but working towards creating safer spaces for transgender people right here in our own communities.

SA: That sounds super important, but how can we work towards doing that?

SB: There are lots of ways that we can work to create safer, more informed and more supportive communities.  To begin with, we could hold youth and adult workshops, perhaps in schools and workplaces, to promote community-building around trans-inclusion.  This could include activities geared towards raising awareness about trans-related language, pronouns, and life-experience.  Out in Schools is one Vancouver organization already working towards creating safer B.C. schools in this way.  Out in Schools facilitates high school workshops geared towards raising awareness about queer issues, including transgender issues, in order to reduce and eliminate homophobic and transphobic bullying.

We could also look at the way gender is reinforced in school-based curriculum.  The Egale survey revealed that 23% of trans students reported hearing teachers use transphobic language daily or weekly (Egale 2012).  An examination into elementary and highschool curriculum to ensure that it is conscious of transgender identities, combined with a transgender education workshop for teachers, would ensure that schools become safer places for transgender youth.  It is important to note that having transgender rights legally recognized at a provincial and national level would go a long way in helping ensure that programs such as the ones I mentioned receive much needed government funding.

SA: These all sound like great ways to ensure more equality for transgender Canadians.  I wonder if there were more legal protections, and more transgender social programs and safe community building, if we would be hearing Jenna Talackova’s story in the news right now.  It seems to me that if top-down and bottom-up initiatives were undertaken to enure transgender rights in Canada, the Miss Canada Universe Pageant would not consider disqualifying a transgender woman.

SB: I think you’re right.  The more information shared, and the more equality promoted, the less likely it will be that we see cases of discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression.  When I look around Vancouver’s queer and allied community I see so many good things happening with regard to advocacy and equality promotion.  There may certainly still be a ways to go, but it is inspiring to see how far we have come.

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British Columbia Human Rights Code. [RSBC 1996]. Chapter 210. Web. 29 March 2012. link

CampOUT. The University of British Columbia. n.d. Web. 29 March 2012.

FTM UK. “FTM UK Official Collab Channel.” YouTube. Web. 29 March 2012. link

Gurvinder, Kalra. “Hijras: the unique transgender culture of India.” International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 1 (2011): 1754-2683. Taylor and Francis Online Journals. Web. 29 March 2012.

ILGA. “Laws prohibiting discrimination on the ground of gender identity.” International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association. Web. March 29 2012.

LEGISinfo. Parliament of Canada. n.d. Web. 29 March 2012. link

Nemoto, Tooru. “HIV-related risk behaviours among kathoey (male-to-female transgender) sex workers in Bangkok, Thailand.” AIDS Care 24 (2012): 210. Taylor and Francis Online Journals. Web. 29 March 2012.

PFLAG. TNET: PFLAG’s Transgender Network. n.d. Web. 29 March 2012. link.

Taylor, Catherine and Peter, Tracey.  Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian Schools. Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2012. Print.

The Huffington Post. “Jenna Talackova, Disqualified Transgender Miss Universe Canada Finalist, Gets Support Via Petition, Twitter.” HuffPost Gay Voices. 26 March 2012. Web. 29 March 2012.

Transgender Health Program. Vancouver Coastal Health. n.d. Web. 29 March 2012.

West Coast LEAF. Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. Youth Training Program Binder. 16 March 2012. Print.

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Nico McKay is a political science major and critical studies in sexuality minor at UBC. Nico is passionate about helping promote more understanding of trans and queer experiences with the hope to create a safer, more inclusive environment at UBC as well as within the broader community.

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Nico McKay is a political science major and critical studies in sexuality minor at UBC. Nico is passionate about helping promote more understanding of trans and queer experiences with the hope to create a safer, more inclusive environment at UBC as well as within the broader community.