Hate dealing with red tape? Talk to a transgendered person and you may start to realize how good you actually have it.
Susan Gapka, LGBT representative for the New Democratic Party and a well-known transgender activist, has plenty of stories to tell. Marking the Trans Day of Celebration at Queen’s University, Gapka described her experiences last Thursday afternoon to a small but attentive audience at Wallace Hall in the John Deutsch Centre.
Falling outside conventional gender categories can often turn a seemingly minor matter into a major hassle. When Gapka called CIBC recently to activate her credit card, a bank employee refused to believe the card was in her name. The employee asked her a series of personal questions – what was her mother’s maiden name, how long had she had the card – until finally eliciting a blank response.
“She clearly was asking me a question I couldn’t answer,” said Gapka, “and then she turned it down…she didn’t believe that my voice was Susan Gapka’s voice.”
A self-identified trans woman, Gapka struggled in early years with her sexual identity. Born and raised as a boy but always uncomfortable in the role, she grew up on a military base at a time – the 1960s – when there were few role models for a young person questioning his or her gender identity (with the possible exception of Christine Jorgensen, the first person to have sex reassignment surgery).
As a child, she ran away from home. “I didn’t have a place to talk about not being comfortable with who I was,” said Gapka. “They didn’t have these kinds of events when I was growing up.”
She eventually graduated from York University with a degree in political science. According to a Facebook group promoting her later bid to become Ontario NDP Executive and Federal NDP LGBT Co-chair, “Susan Gapka transitioned on September 28, 1999 to fulfil her lifelong dream of living as a woman while working as a student placement at Toronto City Hall.”
Now the LGBT Director for Toronto Centre NDP Executive, Gapka has been active in issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the relisting of sex reassignment surgery for trans people in Ontario. But on Thursday her focus was putting pressure on the federal and provincial governments as they consider bills specifically banning discrimination against transgendered individuals.
At the federal level, Bill C-389 would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination (hence the event slogan, “Trans Rights Are Human Rights!”). Currently, the Act only prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.” C-389 has had one reading in Parliament but its future remains uncertain.
At the provincial level, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo re-introduced the Trans Rights Bill in November to add “gender identity” to the Ontario Human Rights Code, which does not currently protect transgendered people. Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals appear to have abandoned the issue, but Gapka refused to waver, telling her audience that “the more pressure you put on the government, the more they’ll respond.”
Also speaking at Wallace Hall Thursday was Kingston and the Islands NDP candidate Daniel Beals, who suggested that the local party organization had not done enough to address trans grievances. “It’s a responsibility we haven’t lived up to,” he admitted. While aiming to change that, Beals was pessimistic about the fate of the federal and provincial bills.
“My gut feeling is this could take forever,” he said. “There is…some cooperation going on between the federal Liberals and the federal NDP, as far as there’s some common ground there and they could maybe get that done at some point. If we had a coalition government maybe we could get that done. It bothers me on a provincial level that the provincial Liberals are not addressing it all…part of that may have to do with the fact that provincially the NDP is a lot weaker, and on a federal level the NDP is actually gathering quite a bit of strength, more strength than I think people realize.”
While Gapka said the bills were mainly symbolic, they underlined the importance of official human rights protection. Trans children, she stressed, needed the state to include them and tell landlords, employers, etc. that “it’s wrong to discriminate”.
But the clock is ticking; the Alberta government recently cut funds for genital reassignment surgery. Education on Gender Issues committee member Aleta Gruenewald offered a potent summary of what was at stake.
“95% of all trans-identified students don’t feel safe at school, as opposed to one-tenth of straight students,” said Gruenewald. “Trans-identified people continue to be marginalized in all walks of life, from being unable to find a guaranteed safe washroom or walk down the street in safety at night…to being routinely discriminated at the office and in the classroom.
“These issues are…terrible because they mask the tremendous joy and satisfaction that trans-identified individuals can experience simply through expressing their own unique identities. Being trans is so often emphasized in terms of mental illness, in terms of difficulty, in terms of the obstacles that trans people face, and so little about being trans is celebrated. It’s for this reason that despite these hardships, it is nonetheless important, even essential, to dedicate this day to celebration, to joy for the many hard-won achievements of trans-identified individuals.”
On that note, Gruenewald segued into a PowerPoint presentation profiling famous transgendered individuals, among them:
- Jan Morris (1926-) – British historian, novelist, and Booker Prize nominee, born James Morris.
- Jin Xing (1967-) – Chinese ballerina; one of the few trans women recognized by the Chinese government.
- Billy Tipton (1914-1989) – American jazz pianist and bandleader, born Dorothy Tipton.
- Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) – African-American drag queen. Co-founder of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which provided food, clothing and shelter to trans-identified young people.
- Eddie Izzard (1962-) – English stand-up comedian, actor and transvestite. He has appeared in films such as Ocean’s Eleven, Across The Universe and Valkyrie.
- Murray Hill – American comedian and pioneering drag king.
- Lynn Conway (1938-) – American computer scientist, electrical engineer and trans woman.
- Nelly Fonseca (1922-1963) – Peruvian modernist poet.
- Aya Kamikawa (1968-) – Tokyo municipal official and the first transsexual person to seek elected office in Japan.
- Jamison Green (1948-) – American transgender activist known for his documentary films and autobiographical book Becoming a Visible Man.
After the slideshow, event participants gathered their chairs in a circle for discussion period. One of the main issues raised was the relationship of trans rights groups to other social movements.
“Solidarity shouldn’t just be between ‘sis-gendered’ [feminist] and trans-gendered people,” said Gruenewald. “It should be between every group that feels as if it has been marginalized, and I just think it’s so important to have that connection to the feminist community…and also to really analyze it from an angle of race and social class as well, because you just can’t take it in a vacuum.”
Event organizer Kalanthe Khaiat agreed.
“You want any kind of social rights initiative to be as open as possible,” said Khaiat. “That’s one thing I’m so grateful to feminist thought for, for giving us this idea of intersectionality of oppression. The movements that will be benefiting the most people…are those that recognize that someone can have all these different individual and social identities that are targets of oppression.
“The classic example that gets brought up inside classrooms is the black non-able bodied lesbian woman, who could align herself with the queer movement, could align herself with the civil rights movement, but those are so limiting in their discrete functions. What is needed is a social rights movement that says, ‘okay, we’ve got able-bodiedness, sexuality, physical ethnicity, gender…all are targets of oppression.’ We’re not going to make any progress by just making one of those oppressions stop, because they all stem from a hegemonic structure that says oppression can happen based on difference.”
Gapka made the case for working within the system to effect change. But others suggested that the system itself was part of the problem.
“The whole socioeconomic structure also has to be taken into consideration,” said Gruenewald. “What does the society value? In a capitalistic society with no bottom line, what kind of society are we creating for individuals within [it]? And what sort of messages are we sending to people who we don’t believe to be ‘optimal’ in terms of their ability to produce or engage in work environments? We have this very limited idea of what will be the most beneficial for the company, and the company kind of rules. If an individual in any way deviates from the norm of what they believe will turn the biggest profit, they’re not going to want to deal with that person.
“[In] the most basic normative example, you could hire a woman or a man, but the woman’s likely to get pregnant, then she leaves, then if she’s pregnant and she leaves ‘we’re going to have to pay for maternity leave, we don’t want to deal with that.’ So it’s that kind of putting the corporate interest above the people.”
For Gapka, the struggle for trans rights comes down to very basic issues. She railed against the need to list oneself as male or female on government documents and suggested amending the Vital Statistics Act.
“There’s no reason to have sex designation on any of your legal documents,” said Gapka. “Only on certain ones…OHIP cards. That was a problem for me when people started calling me sir. Can I call you a bigot? That would be wrong for me to say something that was racist, or homophobic, so why are you calling me sir?”