Canadian Trans Activists
I knew when I began compiling this directory that I was going to encounter a few obstacles.
I knew it was impossible for me to be aware of all activists working in the country, and did not want their being excluded from the directory to be seen as my thinking their work was not worthy. Also, because I started this project with a list of people I was aware of and have been filling in their bios first, younger trans activists were likely to be excluded in the beginning.
I mention these defects as a plea for patience. The directory is imperfect, but its premise is sound: we should know and celebrate the achievements of the Canadians that have made this a better country for trans folks. Thus, I slog on.
With these three activists, the directory numbers twenty individuals.
b. 1966, Toronto, ON.
Former world-class cyclist and now an international inclusivity and diversity advisor, educator and public speaker.
After starting her transition in 1998, became the first athlete in the world to submit to the International Olympic Committee’s Stockholm Consensus, a gender verification process that would allow her to engage in her sport as Kristen. Though she fit their biological criteria, the IOC, international and local cycling associations and the World Anti-Doping Agency insisted that transitioned male-to-female athletes should not receive testosterone. They regarded the testosterone supplement as performance enhancing, although Worley required hormones to stay healthy and to compete, as her body after transition did not produce any hormones. Their ruling failed to recognize that born women produce testosterone also.
Because Worley had stopped competing, she was able to take her case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, rather than the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is the only legal avenue for an athlete with a dispute who is still active in the sport. Thus, she became the first athlete to legally challenge the gender policies of the International Olympic Committee and related international sports bodies, which she successfully argued were designed to discriminate against female athletes. In 2017, the IOC agreed “to promote inclusive sporting environments,”
Also worked with South African middle-distance star Caster Semenya, who had challenged International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules that sought to control naturally high testosterone levels in female athletes.
With co-author Johanna Schneller, wrote Woman Enough, an account of her battle to dismantle assumptions about gender, especially in sport, through scientific fact.
b. 1956, Toronto, ON
School caretaker with the Toronto District School Board (retired).
Toronto Pride Award in 2012. Subject of 2016 documentary Transfixed, which also highlighted her challenges as a trans woman with Asperger’s. One of 16 community torchbearers who carried the flame in the torch relay in advance of Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.
In August 1998. Stonehouse had been approved for gender confirmation surgery (GCS), but in October of that year the Ontario government delisted GCS from OHIP, leaving Stonehouse along with several others no choice but to pursue legal action.
With support from CUPE and lawyer Susan Ursel, who worked pro bono, she launched a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Stonehouse won the right to complete her sex-change surgery, as did two others whose approvals had been cast into limbo. However, the surgery remained delisted. The government of Ontario eventually relisted gender-confirming surgeries in June 2008.
Became involved with the labour movement in 1999 as her case with OHIP ground on. Sat on her local’s equity committee, the Pink Triangle committees of both CUPE Ontario and CUPE National, and the pride committees of both the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
Part of Trans Lobby Group with Susan Gapka and Rupert Raj, whose work and political lobbying eventually made Bill 33, (which added gender identity and expression to the Ontario Human Rights Code) a reality in 2012.
Martine Stonehouse’s oral history is available from the ArQuives.
b. 1968, Halifax, NS
Writer, activist, cultural critic, and university professor. B.A. (1992) and M.A. (1994) in creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. Ph.D. in English Literature at York University (Toronto)
Author of Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 (2014), Wanting in Arabic (2002), and numerous scholarly articles.
Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction 2014 (for Wanting in Arabic).
While a teaching assistant at York, was politically active in the Canadian Union of Public Employees as the first transgender representative to their National Pink Triangle Committee.
Currently teaches in Gender Studies at Queen’s University (Kingston). Her creative and scholarly work addresses transgender and transsexual politics and experience, transgender literature, theory and cultural production, postcolonial literature and theory, diasporic Arab identity and culture, anti-racism, queer politics and economic and social justice. Her poetry moves between and combines traditional and experimental forms.”
The Trans Canada Project
The Trans Canada Project strives to tell the stories of trans, 2 spirit, and non-binary Canadians through an episodic, documentary video series. Founded in Cambridge, Ontario by Kelly Schwab and Cary Scott, the project’s purpose is to humanize trans folks, making us more visible and relatable to both trans questioning people and those seeking to know us.
The project already has a number of videos posted to their YouTube channel. The two founders will be embarking on what promises to be a most interesting road trip around Ontario filming trans people’s stories, with a pit stop in Ottawa scheduled tentatively for August 11 to 12.
Day after day, I get up and I say, do it again! do it again!
Corroborating evidence of my assertion that it is the mundane assaults on trans folks that are most exhausting (see below) appeared on the CBC News website July 27th. A trans woman related her frustration at trying to get an ID card that matches her gender, and her encounter with a government functionary who asked whether she’d had “the surgery”. Whether it’s transphobia or not knowing your job, this is inexcusable, but not surprising. Being trans means being poked at, day after day. Poke, poke, poke. No wonder we’re such an angry lot.
Note too at the bottom of the article the short video of Dr. Joss Reimer, head of Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, apologizing to trans folks for ‘wrong, inappropriate and disrespectful’ wording related to a question about gender on the COVID-19 vaccine consent form. The video doesn’t say what the question was but Manitoba’s original form had four boxes people could pick from when designating sex: male, female, intersex and unknown. After objections from non-binary folks who didn’t see themselves reflected, this was changed to three boxes designating sex: male, female and X, which some people still objected to, claiming X isn’t a gender. (It is, actually, as some non-binary people fought for the right to use it.) The true issue was that the province wasn’t clear about what information it needed and for what purpose, and their apparent lack of awareness that gender and sex are not interchangeable. Trans people worried that they wouldn’t have access to the vaccine if their health card gender didn’t match their vaccine consent forms.
We live in a cisgender world. It will take time for them to catch up. In the meantime, steel yourself for lots of frustration and annoyance. In the words of Ray Davies and the Kinks – who I’ve celebrated before on this site – “Back where you started, here we go round again, day after day I get up and I say, do it again! do it again!”
Conversion therapy and the Conservative Party of Canada
There’s a good possibility that Bill C-6, the bill to ban conversion therapy that passed the House of Commons on June 22nd, may end up dying in the Senate either because Parliament adjourns for the summer or because the Liberals will call an election. The House gave the Senate very little time to deal with the bill, and the Liberals certainly could have moved with more urgency than they did, but if the bill does die there’s only one party that’s ultimately responsible and that’s the Conservative Party of Canada.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole always has plenty of empty words of support for the LGBTQ community, but when it comes to doing the right thing, he blames the Liberals for his own inaction. They’re playing politics, he cries, and pretends that the opposition to the bill from the so-called “social conservative” wing of his party, the same ones who enabled him to become leader, plays no part in his dithering.
Of course the Liberals are playing politics. They didn’t become the most powerful political party in Canada by being choirboys. It’s O’Toole himself, however, who’s given them this glorious opening to exploit. He keeps voicing support for the LGBTQ community but then is undermined by the anti-LGBTQ elements of the party he leads. That’s a gift for the Liberals, and they’ll keep pumping it as long as O’Toole allows the situation to continue. That he pretends that the Conservatives would never do the same if presented with a similar opportunity is laughable. (Pierre Poilievre, anyone?)
The Conservative critics of the bill claim that it does not adequately define conversion therapy and therefore would criminalize voluntary conversations between children and parents or clergy. (Given that the most rabid opponents of the bill are religious fundamentalists, that word “clergy” alone sets warning bells a-ringing.) O’Toole typically continues to play both sides, as he voices support for the bill and yet claims it is insufficiently precise.
Meanwhile, the credibility of the people who profess that these are legitimate concerns looks a bit suspect from the perspective of LGBTQ folks. These include Conservative Senate leader Don Plett, who proposed the infamous bathroom clause to NDP MP Randall Garrison’s private member’s bill to amend the Canadian Human Rights Code to include gender identity (Bill C-279); and former Conservative MP Derek Sloan, who claimed that the bill “would contribute to the massive increase we are seeing with little boys and girls who are being chemically transitioned because of their feelings of gender dysphoria.” (O’Toole finally expelled Sloan from the Conservative caucus in January.)
It’s a bit tiresome hearing Mr. O’Toole crying foul every time the Liberals exploit the divisions in the Conservative Party. The Liberals are doing what political parties do. It’s LGBTQ folks who are being used as the political football here, not you, Mr. O’Toole. If you do indeed support the LGBTQ community, as you claim, then do the right thing. Step up and ensure Bill C-6 does not die in the Senate.
“Where were my big sisters?” Trans women elders and their community
It’s interesting how some things stay with you.
It’s been over a year since I read Kai Cheng Thom’s book, I Hope We Choose Love, but I never forgot the questions she asked in one of her essays: “Where were my big sisters? Where were my foremothers? Where were the older trans women, the accomplished trans women, the fierce survivor trans women that queer culture is so fond of mythologizing in my life?”
Thom’s answer to her own question is maybe more accurate than she knows. “Some of them died. Others went mad. Perhaps there are others who simply dropped out of the public eye – as much as any trans woman can – to try to live quieter, less visible lives.”
I’m a 66-year-old trans woman, and one who often asks herself why she doesn’t drop out and live a less visible life, but since Thom’s question has stayed with me, I thought I’d fill out her answer as much as I can.
Demographics obviously play a big role here. Trans women my age were not a big cohort to begin with. Sure, there were many of us out there, but there weren’t many of us who were actually out. Of this reduced number, I’m saddened when I take the tally of how many have died.
A few years ago, I ran into a trans woman older than myself who I considered a mentor when I was young. She was a mentor to many, actually, and trans folks who knew her often ask me, “Whatever happened to…?” Inevitably I got around to asking her about the intervening years. She sent me her reply in an email. Here are some of her observations, with my comments following lest the passage of years has obscured the reality under which we were living.
After I achieved my goal (transition), I just wanted to live a happy life as a woman, and forget all the pain that had preceded it.
The 70s and 80s were highly transphobic times. There was little joy in being trans. Your best chance at escaping the life was medical transition, if you could get past the gatekeepers. If you couldn’t, hormones acquired illegally and self-administered based on other trans women’s knowledge of correct dosage was not uncommon. Even many of the trans women I knew who were of an activist bent, ended their activism and disappeared when they transitioned. Trust me, they have no desire to come back.
Socializing with what appeared to the public to be “men in dresses” drew attention to me as possibly being one of them.
Her observation about “men in dresses” may seem transphobic, but it’s a reflection of how we were perceived and how we struggled to escape the identification. Those who “passed” as cisgender were more privileged than those who didn’t because in a transphobic world if you can slip into the mainstream not only are you safer, your identity is not being misinterpreted or challenged. (Privileged as I’m using it here is a relative term. I’m sure they weren’t feeling privileged when they were being bullied as kids.)
I no longer wanted to associate with those unhappy people as a group. I just wanted to be a normal person.
Ouch. Her comment about “unhappy people” was a hard truth then, and can still be now. In her essay, Thom talks about there being “no respite in either my personal or professional life from narratives of trauma, enormous responsibility, and scrutiny.” At some point, self-preservation must take precedence over feelings of responsibility. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. If your best path requires you to abandon the trans community, then that’s what you need to do.
You don’t have to have lived through those times to understand all this. I often hear trans youth express how tired they are. That’s a commonality we share. It’s exhausting being trans.
Thom knows this, of course. In her essay, she mentions the numerous ways trans women are abused. “We carry the stigma…of being dangerous, perverted, mentally ill, deceptive, aberrant. On the flip side, trans women are also fetishized – not only sexually but ideologically.” All that is no doubt true, but many trans folks don’t face that drama every day. It’s the mundane aspect of being trans that takes its toll.
We still live in a time in which trans folks cannot just be. You are who you are, but too many people insist that you can’t be who you are. This is not like arguing about politics, which god knows can be tiresome. You can walk away from that and regard it as a difference of opinion (however misguided). It’s hard to walk away from people telling you that you can’t or don’t exist. It undermines you as a human being. You have to fight for your identity, but you’re only fighting for something that other people have the privilege of taking for granted. It’s exhausting when you’re running to remain in the same place.
I hate to paint a dismal picture of this, but if you’re fed up with it already, then imagine how it feels after fifty or sixty years. The good news is that it does get better. The bad news is you carry your trauma with you, and as you get older and you find some place that’s comfortable – and you will, whether that’s in someone’s arms or in a place that allows you to breathe and grow – you don’t feel like reliving past pain.
You may wonder then why I’m still doing this. I wonder, and often, but I can’t change who I am. I have an itch for social justice that won’t go away and by staying active I feel like I’m doing my part, however small. Self-preservation is, however, never far from my accounting.
Writing and keeping a website still allows me to keep a safe distance. I’m not on social media because I couldn’t be bothered, and whether this website gets ten or a hundred visits a day won’t change what I’m doing. Every writer likes to have her work read, of course, but I’m not going to kill myself for visitors. If I need a vacation from being trans, I’m going to take it.
I believe a healthy society is one in which all ages participate, but prolonged transphobia has prevented us from achieving that idealized state. What I like about many of Thom’s essays in her book is her facing the reality that the queer community is not what she thought it was and feeling out her place in it and where she’s going next. We’re all going to get older – it’s better than the alternative, as the old saying goes – and it’s helpful to think about who we want to be when we get there.
Here’s the link to my review of I Hope We Choose Love. I enjoyed it the first time, but I appreciate it more now upon further reflection. It’s a thoughtful collection of essays.
Out with a whimper: the demise of Gender Mosaic
And so this is how it ends.
A few weeks ago I was checking the links on this website to see if they still worked. When I clicked on Gender Mosaic (GM), it sent me to a page telling me the GM URL was available. I can’t say I was surprised. Before the pandemic, I’d heard that no one was responding to messages sent through their website. It had been a moribund organization for some time, but who was I to put a stake through it and declare it dead?
Since I removed the link, I’ve heard from several former members all asking the same question, “What’s happening with Gender Mosaic?” I don’t have an answer. GM has served the trans community for 30 odd years. No one wants to be the person to say it’s done, but this slow death has been painful. It’s time to call a spade a spade: it’s over.
I was a founding member of Gender Mosaic, one of the six souls who showed up in May 1988 to Judy’s townhouse in what to me seemed like another futile attempt to start a trans group. I’d been to so many of these things before. I’d get my hopes up, show up for the big launch and find three people there. On one occasion I arrived and found that even the person organizing it hadn’t bothered to show up! How many times can a person do that before she gets cynical?
Gender Mosaic did not exactly get off to a rousing start either. Had I not brought along two friends, there would have been only four of us, not much different from the failures I’d been to before. There was one difference, however, that became clear in the following months when we struggled to get people to attend. There was a committed core that was going to see this thing through. I knew I could count on these people and it gave me hope that this time it might work. It wasn’t easy finding trans folks pre-Internet, and when you did there was a lot of fear that kept them from coming out. Our patience paid off, however. That fall the membership grew with every meeting. It was exciting to meet new, diverse, and interesting trans people. They, along with that committed core who stuck it out, eventually made GM the dynamic organization it was for many years.
Everything changes, however, and all good things come to an end. Whatever services GM was providing pre-Covid – and I admit I have no idea what they were – can surely be found elsewhere, and if they can’t be found, then perhaps it’s better to start afresh than to watch a once great trans group wither away.
Before the pandemic, I asked a friend if Gender Mosaic even existed anymore. She laughed and said it will always go on. In a sense, she was right. So many people were involved in its over 30 year existence that they inevitably changed the city for the better. It was not just through their activism. Simply being who they were sent ripples across our community. Some did the heavy lifting, others provided the vital support, and for many others GM was the avenue that finally enabled them to come out. Gender Mosaic saved lives. But we also had fun, and met many people who would become life-long friends. It’s a great legacy to leave behind, and everyone involved should be proud of the part they played in it.
The Trans Memory Archive of Argentina
On June 24th, I attended a Zoom event hosted by The Embassy of Argentina and Inspirad@s, a group which raises awareness in Canada of Latin American culture. The event celebrated the creation of the Archivo de la Memoria Trans (Trans Memory Archive) and launched the recently published book of the same name.
The Archivo de la Memoria Trans (AMT) is an archive started by Argentinian trans activists who imagined having a place in which they and their surviving companions could preserve their memories. For two years the AMT was a virtual space where they gathered stories and documents and objects from the community. Finally in 2014 with the help of the visual artist Cecilia Estalles, work began to conserve and protect the collection. The Archive contains more than 10,000 documents, beginning in the early twentieth century to the end of the 1990s. It includes photographic, film, and sound memoirs, passports and national identity papers, letters, notes, police files, magazine articles, newspapers and personal objects.
The event was in Spanish, but with English interpretation and so I missed some of the translation, but the testimony of Carmen Marcial was nonetheless riveting. Sitting alone in front of a simple curtain background, she related with great dignity the persecution, exile and imprisonment of the trans community in the late 70s and 80s. “We had our shield,” she said, in explaining their survival, and raised her arms in defence, a gesture I felt was both literal and metaphorical. She moved me greatly. I was not the only one affected, to judge by the running comments on the sidebar that expressed the respect and admiration of those attending the event. Carmen was two continents away from me in Argentina, but she was my sister.
Many thanks to the Embassy of Argentina for the invitation.
For more, see the Archives website. It’s in Spanish, but has lots of cool photos. See also the book review on this site Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina.
Canadian trans activists
I sometimes feel like I bit off more than I can chew with this web site. I believe it’s important to acknowledge Canadian trans activists, but I’ve been a little slow in compiling these mini biographies and calling the accumulated work a directory is perhaps being a little generous to myself and not fair to the trans activists I haven’t gotten to yet. Nonetheless, I slog on with three interesting trans folks you may want to know.
Performance and visual artist, storyteller, author, scholar (b. November 25, 1950, d. April 24, 2016)
Two-spirit Haudenosaunee trans woman from Six Nations area of Ontario.
Active from 1990s to 2010s, her work explored her various transformations on her journey of decolonization and educated the public to the fact that traditional indigenous societies did not divide people up into simplistic gender binaries. Maracle was a keeper and a creator of culture. She performed mostly across Ontario and Chippewa territories, but also exhibited an art installation and performance piece in London, England in 1998 at the Second International Transgendered Art Festival. She is the author of the book, Chronicle of a Transformed Woman (2000), and many articles.
The Aiyyana Maracle archive is housed in the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. Full bio on their web site.
There is also a good article written by Nehiyaw Two-Spirit trans woman and artist Arielle Twist on the Canadian Art web site about her experience exploring the Maracle archive.
Jamie Lee Hamilton
(b. September 20, 1955 at Vancouver, d. December 23, 2019.) Father was Irish, mother Chippewa-Cree.
Politician, writer, entertainer, and guest lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia and in Humanities at Capilano College. Occasional sex worker. Advocate for Aboriginal people, residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sex workers.
Transitioned in 1970. First youth in Canada to start a medical transition. Spearheaded once-a-week meal program for street trans youth at First United Church in Vancouver. Named Community Hero by Xtra West newspaper in 1997. Tried to bring attention to the victimization and violence directed at sex workers in 1998 when women were disappearing from the Downtown Eastside.
Ran for Vancouver city council in 1995, first trans person to run for public office in Canada. Director of Vancouver Pride. Independent candidate for the publicly elected Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation in the city’s 2008 municipal election.
In 2016, she helped create a sex worker’s memorial in the city’s West End neighbourhood. Died of cancer in 2019.
Biography on Wikipedia.
(b. 1957) Flight school graduate. Pilot. Completed transition in 1990. Unable to return to her profession for 24 years. Carpenter.
After having endured an abusive relationship, Nixon wanted to volunteer with Vancouver Rape Relief, but was told “men aren’t allowed here.” Nixon replied that she was not a man and launched a human rights complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Commission. Nixon was concerned that a trans person who called Vancouver Rape Relief would be turned away. In the meantime, Nixon became a volunteer at Vancouver’s Woman Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW).
In 2002, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal found that Nixon had been discriminated against. BC Supreme Court subsequently overturned the ruling asserting that the shelter had a right to choose its members under the human rights code and that discrimination was allowed in this case.
Kimberly Nixon appealed to the BC Court of Appeal, which in December 2005 upheld the BC Supreme Court ruling. In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed her request to appeal that decision.
The Nixon case is important because it dealt directly with the issue of whether trans women are women. Subsequent court cases across several provinces resulted in legislative changes. Bill C-16 passed by the Canadian Parliament in 2017 finally encoded protection on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.
Trans info from the Ottawa Public Library
There is an informative blog about transgender issues and people on the web site of the Ottawa Public Library currently. (The above link goes directly to it, but it’s listed on the main page, left sidebar.) It’s essentially a Trans 101 course for those who don’t know much about us, with a welcome side trip into trans history that contradicts the mistaken notion that we only popped out of nowhere in the last number of years. There is of course the obligatory reference to famous American trans celebrities – Laverne Cox, in this case – but that’s to be expected when you’re living in a colonized country. (Don’t mind my griping. It’s a good piece.) Note also the excellent suggested reading at the bottom of the blog.
Book review: Trans America: a counter-history
Can we even think of trans before trans? What is the prehistory of transsexuality and transgender? These are some of the questions this history aims to address.
Although this is a history of transgender in the USA, it begins – as all good transgender histories must – with the famous early European sexologists, particularly Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis. Hirschfeld especially had a huge influence on Harry Benjamin, who in turn had a huge influence in the creation of medically defined trans categories during the 1950s. Barry Reay’s purpose in beginning with Hirschfeld and Ellis, however, is also to note the diversity of trans identities in the case histories of their subjects. He convincingly pursues this argument of diversity throughout the book, noting that the “transsexual moment” that followed Christine Jorgensen’s sex affirmation surgery (and which actually lasted about two decades) has been superseded by a recognition of the diversity of trans identities that have always existed historically.
Reay observes that the “history of trans… is closely linked to the birth of the homosexual.” The study of homosexuality influenced the way early trans people were viewed. They were often seen as people unable to accept their sexual orientation and who sought normalcy by living in the opposite gender to which they were assigned at birth. This view was common for some time, although this was not the way trans people presented themselves and even some clinicians reluctantly acknowledged that their patients did truly appear to be the gender they claimed to be.
In contrast to this narrow interpretation of transness, Reay presents some lively histories of early gender diversity. The history of Black, working class receptivity to gender fluidity in the 1920s and 1930s is especially interesting and was encapsulated in the lyrics of a Ma Rainey tune called Sissy Blues in which she caught her man “in a sissy’s arms”. As Reay notes, it “was her man’s infidelity that was the subject of comment, not his sexual identity or masculinity.”
Despite Christine Jorgensen, there was a wariness in the 1950s toward surgical solutions. This gradually diminished through the 1960s. By the mid-70s, about 20 major medical centres were offering treatment, although the criteria for surgery was heteronormative, based on the ability to “pass” as cisgender, and impossible without money.
Concurrent with this rise in a surgical option, was the proliferation of heterosexual transvestite groups, which presented a respectable “middle class decorum” that was “comparable to the reputable face of organized homosexuality presented by the Mattachine Society”.
The surgical solution didn’t decline because of the experimental nature of the early operations, although Reay includes some grisly, less than successful examples that would scare off many people. The decline came about mostly with the “Transgender Turn”, the period in the early 1990s when “the category ‘transgender’ represented a resistance to medicalization, to pathologization, and to the… medico-legal-psychiatric institutions.” Dallas Denny wrote that transgender “arose not from the medical community…but from the transgender community.” It was trans people embracing the diversity of trans identities, identities that always existed but were sometimes made invisible by the transvestite-transsexual model.
This is an interesting book. In a purported history of trans people, however, Reay spends a lot of time writing about people who don’t identify as trans. There’s far too much on drag queens and drag kings, and he dismisses the misogyny in drag far too easily. Trans women were present in the early decades of drag because they had so few places to express themselves, but “purists among the performers disapproved.” This is part of trans history, but I think he overstates its importance.
In another part of the book, Reay advises against including people in other cultures who behave counter to their assigned genders under the trans umbrella, claiming it “colonizes” them. He includes here indigenous cultures and references Don Kulick’s book Travesti, which explores the world of Brazilian prostitutes who present as women, but do not consider themselves such. However, Reay has just written an entire book on transgender history and included endless examples of people who didn’t identify as trans. So why include drag queens, for example, and not Brazilian prostitutes who are, for all intents and purposes, living as women? It is not colonizing when you are employing the word transgender to describe a behaviour and not an identity. (Incidentally, Reay fails to mention that Kulick’s book is subtitled “Sex, gender and culture among Brazilian transgendered prostitutes.” Oops.)
At one point, Reay does ask, “Should transgender studies ‘dispense with identity as an analytic trope’”? His entire book leans toward describing it as a behaviour, but he never actually comes out and says so. If people are behaving in a transgender fashion, then it doesn’t really matter how they identify, and yes, you can include them under the trans umbrella.
Nonetheless, my quibbles with the book should not be viewed as a condemnation of the book itself. History is not history if it is not in some way contested. I thoroughly recommend Trans America: a counter-history. It is highly readable, thought provoking and informative.
More on celebrity (with a nod to Beth Ditto)
Days after writing my piece about Canadian trans musicians (below), I was thinking about celebrity and the possibility I didn’t give it the thought it deserved. Because I inherently don’t believe people should idolize celebrities, my first reaction to the CBC piece on Demi Lovato’s coming out as non-binary was contempt. The musicians I was celebrating, however, while not in the Lovato stratosphere, had their own small degree of fame. I wrote about them because I like when trans people get on with their lives and do stuff they’re passionate about, but I was of course also holding them up as a source of inspiration.
As if on cue, I stumbled upon a piece written by musician Beth Ditto which highlighted the lack of nuance in my thinking about celebrity. Ditto grew up in a small town in Arkansas with a Christian college that largely influenced the town’s thinking. When she saw Boy George on MTV – videos that were soon removed when the college pressured the cable company to cancel the channel – she saw possibilities: “I had a tiny window into queerness in my little developing brain. I took those moments and ran with them. They shaped my idea of what gender is and what music is.”
I tried to imagine myself in her situation. I grew up in the 1970s. They were very transphobic times and the idea that anyone in music would come out as trans was highly improbable. It was the era of glam rock, of course, but only a fool would think glam rock meant anything to trans people. Perhaps if I had a role model for queerness at the time, I would not now be so dismissive of the power of celebrity. It’s not going to change the world, but if it gives one queer person hope that they can escape their stifling world, then of course it has value.
Ultimately, however, you still have to put in the work. Beth Ditto had to go out and find people like herself. Boy George gave her an insight into possibilities, but she wasn’t fooled by the mirage of celebrity: “The media are giving us breadcrumbs to reflect the change they see in the world or to react to our activism.”
Beth Ditto is a smart woman. Her astute insights are from a book titled We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights, edited by Amelia Abraham. Her chapter is excerpted in an article in The Guardian.
Celebrity vs. Canadian trans musicians
The headline on the CBC website read “What Demi Lovato’s non-binary revelation means for the LGBTQ community”. It means nothing, I snorted. Nothing at all. Nonetheless, I dutifully clicked on the link and after reading an article entirely devoid of substance, it was clear to me this emphasis on celebrity is an empty hope indeed.
It’s not my intention to demean Demi Lovato by this. They’ve been open about their struggle and have always supported the LGBTQ community, including standing up for trans people by cancelling their concert in North Carolina in 2016 after that state passed its despicable bathroom law. I wish them well.
I must not get celebrity culture, however, because I don’t see why Demi Lovato coming out as non-binary would shift the thinking of the world and make it a better place for all of us.
I get my inspiration from the many working trans and non-binary musicians in this country. That they may not be so famous is no reflection on their talent. That they pursue their passion without making much money is a world more familiar to me than celebrity.
Josef (born 1954) established herself as one of Canada’s leading session drummers, playing on albums by Prairie Oyster (from which she was fired), Long John Baldry, Sylvia Tyson, Big Rude Jake and Sharon, Lois and Bram, among others. In 1998, she received a Canadian Country Music Award for drummer of the year, and is a member of Canadian roots super group Hey Stella! (along with Lori Yates, Bazil Donovan and David Baxter).
Josef issued the following statement in 2006 to the website sootoday.com regarding her firing from Prairie Oyster:
“My identity as a musician is as important to me as my gender identity and I knew that I was putting decades of hard work on the line. All has not been easy since then. When Prairie Oyster fired me they not only rejected me personally but they also created a statement that resounded loud and clear that said ‘It is not cool to be associated with a transsexual.’ They didn’t have to do this.”
Rae Spoon is a non-binary performer, composer, music producer, visual content producer/director and author. Over the course of a 20-year career – Spoon is only 40 – their music has ranged from bluegrass and country to indie and electronic. Spoon is also founder of Coax records, the purpose of which was to use “their experience as a marginalized artist to create more space in the music industry. They aim to build community where artists from lots of backgrounds can share their music on their own terms while learning how to support each other.”
Spoon is currently in recovery from cancer treatment, but has, with illustrator Gem Hall, just published Green Glass Ghosts, their first young adult novel.
Born in Mississauga, Ontario, Lucas Silveira founded The Cliks, and was their vocalist and guitarist. Before coming out as trans, Silveira played folk music, but shifted to rock after transition explaining that he felt freer to explore the “darker, more hard-core” side to his nature. He found that after his early success The Cliks hit a wall in which the “main focus wasn’t on my music. It was very much on my gender identity.”
Due to Silveira’s hearing loss and complications with tinnitus, The Cliks no longer perform. He is now a co-host on the TV series Shine True, available on OutTV and Fuse. Silveira has also written articles about transgender identity, and appeared in the documentary Sexing the Transman.
Ashanti Mutinta, better known as Backxwash, was the winner of the 2020 Polaris Music Prize for her album God Has Nothing to Do With this Leave Him Out of It. Born in Lusaka, Zambia in 1991, Mutinta moved to British Columbia at age 17 to live with her brother and sister. After moving to Montreal, she released her debut EP F.R.E.A.K.S. and then the follow up Black Sailor Moon. Her music blends elements of rap and metal. Because of uncleared samples from her Polaris prize winning album, it is currently available only as a free download from her Bandcamp page.
In an article on the CBC website updated in December 2020, she said, “I have talked to a few industry types, small and big. I essentially don’t trust a lot of them. I don’t want to be tokenized. I think from a gender perspective our experiences have smartened us up. People use the term ‘street smarts,’ but I think we got trans smart because, as trans people, we can tell when someone is being shifty.”
Rounding out this little journey through Canadian trans music is the fabulous duo known as Vile Creature. Hailing from Hamilton, Ontario, Vile Creature is an experimental doom metal band with “anti-oppressive and fantastical leanings”. It’s a bit extreme for me, but the vinyl version of their new LP Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm! is desirable if only because it’s pressed with the colours of the Trans Flag “blue with white and pink splatter”. A collector’s item, to be sure!
The Census: count me in!
For a few years when I was young, I was having a difficult time reconciling my trans identity with my working life. I cycled through a number of government jobs before the Public Service Commission finally decided maybe they shouldn’t continue hiring someone who keeps quitting on them. This realization on their part coincided with a period of high unemployment in Ottawa and served to deliver an important lesson to me: being trans was hard, but being trans and poor was even worse.
After a few years of barely scraping by, I learned that Statistics Canada needed clerks to process the mountain of paper census forms they had received following the 1981 Census. I first had to write a test to determine whether I had the intellectual ability to perform a boring job, but having successfully done so, I was awarded with much needed short-term employment. They called me a “casual employee”, which suggested they didn’t much care if I showed up or not, although of course they did. During the first day’s orientation session they advised us that “sleeping or attempting to sleep” was not acceptable. Okay, I think I can manage that. (I recorded this admonition with some astonishment in my journal that evening.)
My job with the Census was the beginning of my long road to recovery from trans induced poverty.
We worked in the low, flat annex behind the R. H. Coats tower at Tunney’s Pasture. It was a vast, open space with desks lined up row by row like in the opening scene of the Billy Wilder film The Apartment. At these desks sat the hundreds of clerks processing your census forms. I had evidently done well in the mathematical portion of the test because I was placed in a small unit of 12 people set aside from the rest of the hoi-polloi. We received bundles of forms from the other units and our job was to add the numbers. After we had counted, we passed our bundle to another person in the unit who verified the count. It wasn’t a taxing job, but it demanded accuracy.
Our unit was composed of a housewife or two, a retiree, a few nerds, a pot head, several mid-career unemployed, and me, and for some magical reason we all got along famously. It was one of those rare occasions in life when the stars align and people with whom I thought I’d have nothing in common turned out to be some of the most interesting people I’d met in a while. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that at the end of our term our supervisor held a party at her house. Everyone came, and those with partners dragged them along too.
I still have the appraisal my supervisor handed me at the completion of the job. The quality of my work was deemed “fully satisfactory”, although the quantity of work fell to “satisfactory”. As a Virgo, I value accuracy over speed and so was not disturbed by my evaluation, particularly as in her written note she deemed me “an asset to the operation.”
As a reward for my fully satisfactory service to the nation, I was presented with a pin. It’s a clever design that incorporates the maple leaf into the figure of a man holding up his right arm as if wanting to be counted. I don’t believe there was a similar pin of a woman so despite the motto for the Census that year being “Count me in!”, women could be excused if they wondered if that meant them too.
How times have changed! May 11th was Census Day in Canada, and if you’ve filled out your form you will have noticed that trans people are being counted this year. The exact question is “What was this person’s sex at birth?” This is followed by the helpful explanation that sex “refers to sex assigned at birth”, before the questionnaire moves on to the second question: “What is this person’s gender?” As this was likely to elicit a big “What?” from a significant portion of the Canadian population, Stats Canada felt obliged to provide another explanation: “Refers to current gender which may be different from sex assigned at birth and may be different from what is indicated on legal documents.” Not only are your choices male and female, but if neither of those are suitable you also have an option to “please specify” another.
What I loved best about this, however, was that if your gender didn’t align with your sex assigned at birth, you got an extra “verification” page. I laughed when I saw this. It was an “okay, maybe you didn’t understand the last question. Just to be sure we’ve got this right, you are female now but were assigned male at birth. Is that right?” I could imagine the folks at the Census arguing about this. “You know, we should really put a verification in because a lot of folks might not have a clue what we’re talking about.” As I learned when I worked for the Census, accuracy is paramount.
I’m sure some portion of the trans population will be somehow offended by these questions. I don’t have much faith that any government program to help trans folks will come from it, which is the most cited justification for having a census, but I’m all for being counted. I want to know how many there are of us, and am glad Statistics Canada wants to know too. We should have a little faith that our information will be protected and will be used in a positive manner.
Very few other countries count trans folks in their census and, perhaps surprisingly, several that do are less progressive than Canada. A quick internet search reveals the only other countries that included trans or third sex people were Pakistan (2017), Nepal and India (2012). England and Wales included a voluntary question in their 2021 census that asked “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” I believe, however, any statistician will tell you that voluntary questions are largely useless.
So, count me in for 2021!
“How can it be that the continuing anger of the trans community keeps surprising me?”
Jill Soloway, creator of the television series Transparent, first encountered trans anger when they cast cis man Jeffrey Tambor in the role of the parent who comes out to his (her) family as trans. In She Wants It, the book about the series and Soloway’s journey from straight mother of two to identifying as queer and non-binary, they relate how by season four trans people were involved in every part of the production. And yet Soloway, despite becoming close to many of the trans people working for them, was still often startled by the anger that surfaced when they discussed the series.
Because I immersed myself in it when I was young, “the continuing anger of the trans community” doesn’t surprise me. I grew up in transphobic times when we had no say in how we were being portrayed. I considered most of what I saw as a form of hate against me and people like me, and I raged against it. That I had no place to express my anger only made it worse. I lived in a state of perpetual rage until it became a threat to my mental well-being.
I suspect my experience of anger isn’t far different from that of other trans people, maybe not so different from that of other oppressed groups. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock addresses the antisemitism he’s experienced by asking “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” It’s human nature to lash out at our perceived enemies, but for trans people our anger seems at times to rise to another level. And it is not often our friend.
There are both political and personal reasons for that.
While righteous anger can feel cathartic, and it may even for a time motivate us to try to change the world, at some point we need to let it go. Changing minds is done the slow, hard way by calm reasoned argument not by hurling abuse. I know this is hard. You need to have the patience of a Zen Master to transform your rage into persuasion and explanation, but that’s what we need to do.
Transphobes know our anger, maybe better than we do. The Wild Women Writing Club claimed the reason they were using pseudonyms in attacking Torrey Peter’s novel Detransition Baby (below) was “because of the threat of harassment by trans extremists.” They make their transphobia sound reasonable and make us sound like the ones filled with hate. It’s an effective strategy, and yet our anger ensures that we keep falling into their trap.
When you’re in a rage, you’re not being rational and you say some regrettable things.
Let’s be clear. The oppression of women is the original sin of all oppressions. Women are our natural allies against the patriarchy. That some women don’t see that should not be a reason to fling invective at them. All women need to be respected. Our fury is no excuse for our behaviour.
This is where our anger crosses over from damaging us politically to damaging us personally. We hold onto it because we feel its righteousness and because no one can take that away from us. It becomes part of us, but it hurts people too, and it’s not something we should cherish.
When you’ve nurtured your anger for some time it is not something you can drop when you finally decide you’ve had enough of it. It doesn’t work that way. It seeds itself in you. When it’s not serving you any longer, you can’t just root it all out. Part of the rage that almost consumed me when I was young is still lodged somewhere in my psyche. At this point in my life, it serves absolutely no purpose. When it rises again it distorts my reality and disturbs my peace of mind. I’m old enough that it is no danger to my well-being, but I loathe this remnant of my youth, this transphobic wound that has taken so long to heal.
I have no illusions that this little essay on trans anger will change anything. Trans people are always in somebody’s cross-hairs and we’re tired of it. You give as good as you get. We would, however, do much better with more light and less heat. We would be wise also to heed Michelle Obama’s advice: “When they go low, we go high.”
Triple Echo and Notes from the Underground
I’ve been taking another vacation from being trans lately and so thought I’d scan another issue each of Triple Echo and Notes from the Underground (NFTU) in between planning and digging in my garden.
I was a little reluctant to upload this issue of Triple Echo from September 2000 as I violated someone’s copyright by stealing the art for the front cover. I couldn’t help it. I had no money to hire anyone and couldn’t draw myself, but I needed something to illustrate the first episode of ‘Tara Taylor – Transwoman!” and it was perfect. I get a laugh reading this comic again. It had so many possibilities to deliver social satire, commentary and criticism from a trans perspective. Oh well. Maybe a talented trans artist can take it a step further and resurrect it into a graphic novel sometime.
There’s other good stuff in this issue too. I used to buy old sexology books whenever I could find them and I condensed their stories on trans folks in an article called ‘Tall Tales and Old Warriors’. “Old books on sexual behaviour are fascinating historical documents,” I wrote, and this issue of Triple Echo can now be regarded the same way. So much has changed for trans folks since this was published.
The issue of Notes from the Underground I uploaded takes us further back to 1995. There were only three issues in volume 8 and they all had a tabloid news feel to them. (The headline in this issue reads ‘Sexual Sadists Who Murder’.) If I recall correctly, this approach as well as the fact NFTU was being distributed in stores, wasn’t universally well received by the membership of Gender Mosaic. It may have been why the editor left after only three numbers. Nonetheless, these issues reflect how dynamic the group was in the mid-90s. There’s further evidence of this in the note from the Bylaws Committee Chair which mentions how unruly the meetings had become. Passion may be difficult to contain, but it’s still preferable to indifference.