Local advocates hope the move will deter discrimination against trans people

Near the end of September, two MPs from different parties each introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons that seeks to protect the rights of trans individuals in Canada.

Bill C-276 and Bill C-279 both hope to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression. In addition, both bills would amend the Criminal Code to include trans individuals as a recognized group, so that crimes committed against this group would be treated as hate crimes.

Private members’ bills are introduced by MPs who are not cabinet ministers, and subsequently, have a hard time becoming law because the time allocated for the consideration of such bills are restricted. However, the bills have sparked interest amongst the trans community, as it brings to light issues of discrimination and violence that trans individuals face.

“Trans” is often used as a broad umbrella term that refers to a range of gender identities, including transsexual. Transsexual refers to a gender identity that is opposite to a person’s birth sex.

One woman’s story

Mercedes Allen is a writer and graphic designer who works in Calgary. Growing up, Allen always knew there was something different about her.

“Being trans is like wearing a mask,” Allen said.

“It’s not like we go out on Halloween and wear a mask. Every other day is Halloween. We keep trying to be how other people want us to be.”

Allen was living in Edmonton in 2005 when she began the transition from man to woman. Allen says she tried to start the transition process when she was 18 years old, but was always confronted with people who refused to help, or would come across therapists who said they could “cure” her.

“What ultimately started me on the path to transitioning again was an act of violence,” Allen said.

While still living as a man, Allen had created a piece of artwork that was posted online, that showed a male torso trying to zip itself up, with female hands reaching out of it. Mercedes Allen holds up a painting depicting what it’s like to live as a trans individual; female hands reach out of a male torso that is trying to zip itself up. Before their transition trans individuals hide their true selves.

Photo by: Silvia Pikal.

A short time later, when Allen was coming back from work, a group of men were waiting outside her apartment.

“One of them had a golf club and they asked for me by name,” Allen said.

“When I answered to it they attacked me.

“I was really lucky there was a neighbour who shouted at them and that was enough to scare them off. I wasn’t really hurt, but it terrified me.”

After the attack, Allen lived in fear and did not want to go anywhere besides work and home.

“I went into this shell,” Allen said. “I was so scared I didn’t want to stop at the grocery store.”

After about six months, Allen reached a crisis point.

“I started planning out a suicide attempt and then realized transitioning is the one option I hadn’t tried and actually seen through,” Allen said.

“I had seen the negative that could happen, but I didn’t know whether something positive could happen. Once I did, it made a huge positive difference in my life.”

Allen says that since her transition, she hasn’t experienced any violence. She hopes that if either one of the bills becomes law, it will allow education around trans individuals, which could aid in working against transphobia. In addition, with greater sentencing around hate crimes, it could help to deter violence.

“It’s a signal to people that you can’t discriminate on the basis that someone is transsexual or transgender,” Allen said.

Another Albertan’s experience

Jan Buterman is an Edmonton-based teacher who was fired for undergoing sexual reassignment surgery.

Buterman says he is skeptical about any immediate changes the amendment to the Canadian Human Rights legislation could bring if passed, but feels it is an important step for trans rights.

“Social change takes a long time,” Buterman said. “Symbolic action is great, but will that make a tangible, on the ground change for trans people? It would be naive to think that.” Jan Buterman was fired from a Catholic school in St. Albert after undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. He had been working as a substitute teacher. Buterman said he hopes the new legislation will discourage discrimination against trans individuals.

Photo courtesy of: Jan Buterman. 

In 2008, he was working as a substitute teacher in St. Albert at a Catholic school. After being with the school for about six months, Buterman was let go because he transitioned from woman to man.

In a letter, Steve Bayus, deputy superintendent of schools for Greater St. Albert, affirmed the decision in writing:

“Your gender change is not aligned with the teachings of the Church and would create confusion and complexity with students and parents.”

Buterman contacted the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) in response to the firing and they launched a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Buterman says his gender should be irrelevant to the school and that he informed the school of his transition because he underwent a name change — requiring all new documentation in regards to a passport, driver’s license and banking records.

The Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools district offered Buterman a $78,000 settlement or a one-year teaching job earlier this year, with the condition that he must never talk publicly about the case and drop the human rights complaint. Buterman says he was not comfortable accepting the settlement.

Facts and figures

Gender identity is not explicitly protected in the Alberta Human Rights Act and is only explicitly protected in the Northwest Territories, where the NWT Human Rights Act states that it is against the law to discriminate against or harass people because of gender identity.

There are no figures around workplace discrimination and trans individuals in Alberta, but the PULSE project is an Ontario-based organization that seeks to shed light on the challenges experienced by trans people.

Over a period of two years, they conducted several interviews and surveys with 433 trans people aged 16 or older who lived, worked or received health care in Ontario. They found that while 71 per cent of trans people have some college or university education, about half make $15,000 per year or less.

Eighteen per cent of trans respondents had been turned down for a job because they were trans, and 13 per cent said they were fired because of their gender identity. One of out five respondents were unemployed or on disability.

Key terms

Gender identity – a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else

Gender expression – how a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics

Trans – sometimes used as shorthand for “transgender” but not everyone whose appearance or behavior is gender-nonconforming will identify as a transgender person

(American Psychological Association)

“It came to the point where it was, ‘take some money and shut up,’” Buterman said.

“I’m not okay with the idea of letting them cover up something I disagree with. This is an opportunity to have discourse.”

Buterman is currently awaiting a decision from the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The ATA also decided it will no longer pay for his lawyers on the grounds that the cash offer was substational. 

Buterman says that trans individuals often face discrimination in the workplace.

“There’s not an outright ‘if you’re trans you’ll lose your job,’ but as soon as they start the transition, somehow they become complete morons and get written up,” he explained.

“The timing is a little suspicious, but I’ve also been hearing more happy stories, like companies bringing in experts to talk with HR.”

Both bills are a reintroduction of Bill C-389, which died in the Senate earlier this spring when the federal election was called.

The next step for the two bills is a second reading, where they will be debated sometime within the next year, according to Randall Garrison, the NDP MP who introduced one of the bills. With the NDP now the official Opposition party, the bill could stand a stronger chance than the average private member’s bill.

Allen and Buterman both hope that the new bills won’t meet the same fate as C-389.


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