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Inspiration from Armenia: Lilit Martirosyan

For some time now, I have been considering adding an international component to this web site. Since I’m not even covering everything that’s happening in Ottawa, it did seem a little absurd to be throwing myself upon the world, but as a woman of many interests it is hard to limit myself, particularly as there are so many important and fascinating stories out there.

Not all of these are positive, unfortunately, and yet even in the struggle of trans people in other parts of the world, we can find hope. There is a line in the Korean movie Age of Shadows that reflects this idea: “Even when we fail, we move forward. The failures accrue, and we tread on them to advance to higher ground.” So it has been in this country, and so it is elsewhere.

Although I’ve written one article on international subjects – a review of books on trans people in Argentina and Poland – what finally pushed me to create this category was an article I read on trans woman Lilit Martirosyan’s speech to the Armenian parliament. On April 5, 2019, during a session of parliament when human rights were being debated, Ms Martirosyan was smuggled in and took to the podium to air the grievances of the transgender community in Armenia. She said, “I ask you to look at me as the collective image of tortured, raped, physically abused, burned, stabbed, killed, emigrated, subjected to discrimination, poor and unemployed transgender people.” Although homosexuality has been decriminalised in Armenia, discrimination is common and Ms. Martirosyan’s speech precipitated the predictable backlash. She has been subject to death threats and some parliamentarians even called for her to be burned alive. (Here is the link to The Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/apr/26/armenian-mps-call-for-trans-activist-to-be-burned-alive-after-historic-speech-lilit-martirosyan)

LilitSince I read this article, I have been unable to get Lilit Martirosyan out of my mind. I am in awe of her bravery and strength of character. Although I can’t claim any of her glory simply by being trans, I found her inspirational and a testament to what we’re capable of under the most trying of circumstances. She somehow made me proud to be trans.

So Ms. Martirosyan is the first story of this international section. I don’t pretend that it will be comprehensive. I’m proposing it be a combination of short comments with links to articles elsewhere and longer pieces I’ll have written on events in other countries that I find relevant and interesting.

Canada can seem like a relative utopia for trans people compared to many other nations. Even so, I know the struggle for trans rights in this country is hardly over. What happens elsewhere can perhaps seem irrelevant to our immediate lives. And yet, Ottawa is home to the embassies of the world and a cosmopolitan view is part of the territory. It’s a small world out there. We have much to learn from it.

Book reviews from Samantha’s P.’s web site

Earlier this year I inherited a number of books from Samantha P.’s personal library. Samantha was a long time member of Gender Mosaic and a great asset to our community for the work she did and for the person she was.

Some of what she did for the community was reflected in the web site she hosted for many years. Recently I was given the opportunity to select from her site anything I might want and add it to this one. I’m honoured to receive this legacy from Samantha and feel it’s a good way in turn to honour her memory.

I am sensitive to the family’s request regarding this material and will not be publishing some of her personal writings. However, since this is a bookish site, I thought the easiest content to place would be Samantha’s reviews of books. There are a lot of classics there, old and new, which I’m delighted Samantha took the time to review. You can find the complete list in the sidebar. I will also add a link to Samantha’s reviews in the drop down menu above.

I’ll be looking through the rest of Samantha’s site and may add other material as I go along.

The pioneer days of trans acceptance

Although I wake up every day thankful to be a citizen of Canada, I am also often reminded that when it comes to trans acceptance in this country we are still very much in pioneer days.

People in Canada who hate trans folks are not often so blatant about it as William Whatcott. If you missed the news from British Columbia, Whatcott tried to prevent trans woman Morgane Oger from being elected in the 2017 BC election solely because she was trans. He had no critique of her policies, but rather printed 1500 flyers claiming Oger was a “biological male who has renamed himself … after he embraced a transvestite lifestyle.” He declared himself against the promotion of “homosexuality and transvestitism” and described being transgender as an “impossibility” and a “sin”.

Tanya Granic Allen and Laura-Lynn Thompson. Loving us to pieces. (Facebook.)
Tanya Granic Allen and
Laura-Lynn Thompson.
Loving us to pieces.
(Facebook.)

If you haven’t guessed it yet, Whatcott is one of those love-thy-neighbour Christians who have a hard time loving their neighbours. He joins his loving compatriots Tanya Granic Allen, who ran for leadership of the Ontario Conservatives seemingly for the sole purpose of cancelling the sex education curriculum, and Laura-Lynn Thompson, who finished fourth in the Burnaby byelection won recently by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

Laura-Lynn Thompson distinguished herself by calling the idea of gender fluidity “the greatest and most insidious assault against our children that this nation has ever seen”. Thompson is a former Christian broadcaster and pundit who had run earlier for the position of school trustee in Burnaby. When asked by local paper Burnaby Now how as a trustee she would support trans kids, she replied she would “love them to pieces”.

Personally, I’m inclined to resist being loved to pieces by someone who considers me a threat to children. It’s probable she may have a different interpretation of the word love than I. Think conversion therapy.

Although Thompson lost both elections, it is hardly reassuring to learn that, running for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, she garnered almost 11% of the vote in the federal byelection.

Whatcott meanwhile didn’t get any support from the BC Human Rights Commission after Oger filed a complaint against him. They concluded recently that his actions “drew on the most insidious stereotypes and myths about transgender people” and that his flyer exposed Oger “to hatred and contempt.” Whatcott was ordered to pay Oger $55,000 in compensation. As I said, I’m glad I live in Canada.

This is not to say that Whatcott did not have his defenders. They were the usual gang who brayed about free speech while pretending that it comes with no responsibility attached. In truth what they really preach is free speech for themselves, but not so much for sexual or ethnic minorities or the liberal left. They’re arguing for their right to control the agenda and, in the memorable words of Brazilian philosopher of education Paulo Freire, their “freedom to oppress”.

The passage of Bill C-16 in 2017 was a huge breakthrough for trans people, but when it comes to trans acceptance in this country we are still very much in pioneer days. There is much land left to clear before we can build our home, and while we work we can never forget there are bears in the woods and snakes in the grass.

Ottawa Trans History

After a little deliberation, I have added a new entry to begin Ottawa’s trans history.

August 28, 1971

This history of trans people in Ottawa begins with an event at which we were absent. It was Canada’s first demonstration for civil rights for gays and lesbians, a protest called We Demand that took place in the driving rain on Parliament Hill. There is a mural on Gilmour Street just off Bank Street in Ottawa’s queer village that commemorates this event. Part of the mural is not factually accurate, although its inaccuracy is generous in spirit and very much suggestive of a larger truth. It says that transgender persons were included in this demand for civil rights when of course we were not.

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The Ottawa Citizen headline following this demonstration read, “Homosexuals list grievances in protest on Hill”. If the tone of the headline mildly suggests the protesters were whiny children, one can only imagine the scorn had there been trans people present. The article noted that the “spokesmen for the groups” claimed that prejudice against homosexuals forced them into hiding, an erasure that was even more complete and oppressive for trans people.

WeDemand
We Demand protest. Grainy photo from the Ottawa Citizen via microfilm. Despite the homophobia of the time, the gay community retained its sense of humour: “Support your local monarchy. Hire a queen.”

It must be noted also that it wasn’t just mainstream society that harboured prejudices against trans people. Before gay liberation became a serious movement for civil rights there were a large number of gays who felt their best chance of being accepted in the straight world was to act as straight as possible. So effeminate gays or trans people within the community were not welcome by everyone. It was a time of hierarchical oppressions where you fought against your oppression and abandoned everyone else to their’s.

So no, we weren’t there. The mural glosses over this, and yet I believe in its fundamental truth. This was the beginning. Were it not for a handful of courageous lesbians and gays willing to stand up to the homophobia of the time, the fight for trans rights could not have started. I applaud the mural for seeing this history in long view, that what happened on August 28, 1971 had far reaching consequences. The message is also inclusive, for it acknowledges what was once not so universally accepted: that gays, lesbians, bisexual and trans people need to support each other.

Less than a month after the We Demand demonstration on Parliament Hill, discussions began to create what would become Gays of Ottawa (GO), an organization that would become prominent in Canada’s gay rights movement. The fight was on. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

See also June 7, 1998: ALTGBO, the Association of Lesbians, Transgenders, Gays and Bisexuals of Ottawa.

For a history of Gays of Ottawa, see https://www.villagelegacy.ca/tours/show/3

Ottawa Trans History

Triple Echo becomes Trans Ottawa

A few months ago it occurred to me that not all people enjoy arcane literary references as much as I do. Perhaps, I thought, when looking for information about trans issues in Ottawa, “Triple Echo” would not be the first thing they type in their web browser. Maybe something like, oh, “Trans Ottawa” would make more sense.

I have to laugh at my own blindness. A long time ago when I was an English Major at Carleton University I became so enamoured of Geoffrey Chaucer that I thought I’d share my enthusiasm with a few friends who had gathered to watch a hockey game. At the time I ascribed my failure in this endeavour to bad timing rather than the more logical notion that they weren’t remotely interested.

I saw those same glazed eyes a few months ago when someone asked me why I had named the site Triple Echo and I went on at great length about this fascinating novella that was written in 1969 that displayed a remarkable…. Oh. You don’t really care, do you?

So my journey to the obvious has concluded. Triple Echo is now Trans Ottawa. What it should have been in the first place.

Trans Health System Design Workshop

On Saturday, March 9, 2019 about 18 participants gathered at the 25One Community space , 251 Bank Street to talk about their experiences accessing transition-related health care in the Champlain region. The purpose of the workshop was to design a better system for accessing hormones and surgeries locally. It was a stimulating discussion that ran overtime and confirmed what I always knew: there’s a lot of brainpower in the trans community. We can accomplish anything if we put our minds together.

Thanks to Taryn Husband and Natalie Duchesne for organizing. Health care, especially for trans people, is a personal issue. While there was a confidentiality agreement in place, the group felt that a summary report of the proceedings should be available online once it’s released. Stay tuned.

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age

Although it has been around since the late ’80s, in the last few years the concept of intersectionality has gained prominence when discussing oppression. Very simply, intersectionality theory states that those who are most marginalized in society are those who fall under multiple forms of discrimination. At times the dynamics of intersectionality can seem like an academic exercise, but in Mamaskatch, the concept comes to full and vivid life. This is the memoir of a Cree man coming of age under the barrage of colonialism, racism, homophobia, religious oppression and, tangentially, transphobia.

mamaskatch-1

Although Darrel J. McLeod’s mother was sent to a residential school, and like so many others suffered greatly for it, her life didn’t completely unravel until after the death of her husband, Darrel’s father. There are passages in the book that convey the warmth of their family despite their not having much and the traditions of Cree culture that kept them anchored together. Sadly, these times came crashing down with his mother’s alcoholism and the resulting fragmentation of his family. The responsibility to keep the family together descends on Darrel who is in no position and much too young to make a success of it. The arrival of the government bureaucrat from social services to take the youngest children away is heartbreaking.

The memoir that follows says much about Darrel McLeod’s resilience, but he never frames it in those terms. Instead, he is unafraid to show his vulnerability as he navigates a frequently hostile world and tries to find his path between Cree and White cultures. The racism is often stunningly irrational: Darrel’s sister’s husband was happy to marry her, but they split in part because he didn’t want to “have kids with Indian blood.”

Darrel’s journey to understand his sexuality is as fraught with peril as his numerous other challenges. His problems are compounded when he is sexually abused by his sister’s husband when he is just twelve years old. The guilt and trauma that followed from that abuse – exacerbated by his unfortunate stint with a Christian group that sought to exorcise his homosexual leanings – made it extremely difficult to pick apart who he truly was and then be comfortable with that person. And there was one further complexity: the brother and uncle he grew up with began living as trans women. Several times he wondered could he too be trans?

Trina’s and Diane’s stories – his former brother Greggie and uncle Danny (who was close in age to his brother) – run through this memoir and are an unpleasant reminder of how transphobic the 1970s were. Even so, Darrel’s mother’s reaction when she first discovered Trina was on hormones was sympathetic: “We havta a-ssept him, Son. It don’t matter. We can’t discard him.”

If only that were enough. Trina’s and Diane’s fates are difficult ones: sex work, drug addiction, transphobia. The dodgy state of trans health at the time results in a surgery for Trina that is less than ideal. Diane takes her own life. She had returned home,

…seeking the acceptance and love she and Greggie – Trina – had experienced as young boys dressing up, playing house and doing girls’ chores. Perhaps if they had remained crossdressers, the acceptance would have been there. But complete gender alteration – a surgical sex change – was new territory for our people, and our culture had shifted. Catholic values had replaced the tolerance that our Cree great-grandparents and our older aunts and uncles had shown regarding sexuality and gender identity. Auntie Rosie and Mother had always been solid in their support of Diane and Trina, but others struggled with it or outright condemned them.

Mamaskatch is a reminder of a time not so long ago when racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia had direct and devastating effects on individuals. I hope we’ve become better since then.

Mamaskatch was the worthy winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.

The Hat

A few weeks ago I was browsing around a well known Canadian clothing store looking for winter essentials like gloves and socks when I stumbled upon a fabulous winter hat. It was a warm, pink coral toque with a furry pom pom. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it. I went to the nearest mirror, put it on my head and giggled. It was adorable! More worrisome, I thought I looked good in it. So of course I had to put it back.

I was standing there looking at it wondering why I had returned it to the shelf. True, it cost more than I usually pay for these items, but was that the reason? No, of course not. I was putting it back because it was so deliciously feminine that I felt compelled to censor myself. Somewhere in the back of my mind I saw that finger wagging at me telling me I was being too much of a princess.

I started thinking about the ways in which trans women’s lives have always been regulated and what if any effect it’s had on the way we express ourselves. During the early 1990s when many of my friends were trying to transition, the gatekeepers were always defining the sort of woman we should be. If we weren’t that kind of woman, then we couldn’t possibly be a woman at all.

One of the things the gatekeepers were always on the lookout for were princess like qualities. Too much princess meant you had to be a transvestite, and that meant no hormones for you sister! Of course, we figured all this out and presented to them the woman they expected. So evolved this ridiculous back and forth game in which the gatekeepers’ primary motivation was preserving the gender binary and their specific version of womanhood and our primary motivation was to play along to get what we wanted. It was a genuinely stupid process that not only completely ignored trans women’s experiences but also, because it demanded we adhere to a certain model of woman, denied the existence of diversity in cisgender women.

But then cisgender women’s lives have always been regulated too. We are shocked by the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia where men decide every aspect of their lives, but we forget that only a hundred years ago it was considered bold for a woman to ride a subway in Canada without male accompaniment. In such a repressive environment, women will censor themselves rather than stand out and be pilloried.

It took a long time to free ourselves from the strictures imposed upon us by the gatekeepers, but in other ways, trans women’s lives, like those of cisgender women, are still regulated. I was reminded of this while reading Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men. At one point she writes, “In the morning, as I get ready for work, I avoid choosing clothes or accessories that will highlight my femininity and draw unwanted attention.” Ah, women’s eternal dilemma. But was this me too? Was this why I had returned the hat back to its shelf?

It didn’t stay there long. I went back to the mirror to have another look, and a few minutes later I walked out of the store with my hat on my head and smile on my face. I’m not censoring myself anymore.

tarahat4
Tara and her happy hat

Later that week I was in my neighbourhood drugstore checking out the makeup when the woman beside me looked at me and said, “You know, that hat looks good on you.” I couldn’t believe it. I thanked her and told her I almost didn’t buy it.

“Oh,” she replied. “That would have been a shame.”

Chalk one up for being true to yourself.