Books

Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader, edited by Dan Irving and Rupert Raj. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., ISBN 978-1-55130-537-0 (paperback).

TransActivism1Published in 2014, this collection of essays on trans activism in Canada is nothing if not diverse. Indeed, in its very breadth it emphasizes both the variety of trans lives and the numerous and assorted challenges trans people face.

The book is divided into three parts, with each part subdivided into two sections.

Part one, titled “Transforming Experiences of Oppression into Opportunities for Social Change”, is about how personal experience often motivates one to become an activist. I don’t think the two poems by Susan Gapka in this part are especially illuminating, but certainly all the other contributions are worthy. Two of these are linked thematically. Jamie Lee Hamilton’s perspective on prostitution in Vancouver in the years 1975 to 1984 and Sandy Leo Laframboise’s essay on that city’s High Risk Project Society.

Those unfamiliar with life on the street will find Hamilton’s essay especially insightful. It describes how people employed in sex work in the years between 1975 and 1984 formed a community through their engagement with local citizens and area businesses. It was this sense of community that kept sex workers largely safe.

When sex workers started being targeted by police, however, and “concerned” residents with money and influence took up the cause the community fractured. Sex workers were displaced and having lost their support network were put in danger. Hamilton cites the research of criminologist Dr. John Lowman which showed little or no violence against sex workers prior to 1978. Unfortunately, most everyone has heard of the sorry fate of many Vancouver sex workers since then.

Hamilton’s essay provides a good background to Sandy Lee Laframboise’s contribution on the High Risk Project Society (HRPS). By 1994, the HRPS had established “a full-fledged volunteer-run facility for street entrenched trans folks who were drug addicted and/or sex trade workers”. Most if not all street trans women were ineligible for provincial funding as they failed their Real Life Tests simply by being prostitutes. This chapter on the HRPS is instructive for the mammoth effort required to keep a organization like this going against the infighting and the resistance of mainstream organizations still largely ignorant of trans people’s lives.

Several other noteworthy chapters in this section include Viviane Namaste’s interview with Michelle De Ville, in which she tells the history of her working in Montreal bars in the late 70s; a bio of long time activist Rupert Raj; and Michelle Boyce sharing a chapter with her daughter Jessica on the problems that arise “when dad becomes mom”.

The second part of the book is subtitled “Critical Reflections on Doing Trans Activism”. These essays for the most part also have a strong personal perspective.

There is one essay in this group that doesn’t fit and that is by Calvin Neufeld. “What do vegetarianism and other forms of ecological politics have to do with trans activism? Everything.” Well, maybe, but in a book whose focus is on trans activists working to make trans lives better, this essay tries to convince trans people to become vegetarians, which seems to me off topic. I say this as one who believes in the value of vegetarianism. This essay simply doesn’t belong here.

However, virtually every other essay in this section is outstanding. The interview with Marie-Marcelle Godbout, founder of L’Aide aux Transsexuel(le)s du Québec is inspiring; the chapter on trans and genderqueer people labelled with intellectual disabilities provides insight into a much neglected topic; and Grey Kimber Piitaapan Muldoon’s contribution on “expressions of trans activism north of Lake Nipissing” is eye opening. It examines how people in the North express their gender variations differently from those in the cities, and how their expression of gender is often discounted because the dominant view of gender variant people has been created by the knowledge centres of cities, which of course wield the power and set the standards. This was a thought provoking chapter not just in what it said but in what it implied. If geography does affect the way one expresses one’s gender – and how could it not? – how many different ways do people express their gender variations in such a diverse country like Canada with so many remote communities?

The last part is titled “Transforming Institutions from the Inside”. This is the more scholarly part of the book and though some of the ten chapters are undoubtedly a little dry, most are readable.

“Trans in Class” by j wallace is the story of how an “18-month contract addressing homophobia became seven years of changing school culture and climate around sexual orientation and gender identity.” This is such a hopeful essay that tracks how student attitudes evolved from thinking trans people were “really weird and not normal” to students picking up the baton themselves and continuing the work of gay and trans inclusion in schools. The changes in schools did not happen by themselves and wallace and his compatriots elsewhere deserve much credit for making it just a little bit better for trans youth.

Treanor Mahood-Greer’s chapter on Social Work and Gender reveals how Northern Ontario social workers’ “unfamiliarity with non-normative expressions of gender …leads my cisgender colleagues to ignore gender issues or to merely ‘tolerate’ trans people.” Although much of this research was done in the mid 2000s, I was still a little disheartened by the ignorance of some of the social workers surveyed. Clearly I was a little naive. It exposed yet another area in which trans people are under served.

Ultimately this anthology reveals the gains made by trans people (and the work that went into that) but also the long road that remains to be traveled before we achieve full acceptance in Canadian society. There are many valuable essays in this volume that I have not covered in this review. Considering the dearth of books on trans issues in Canada and the people involved, this is an informative addition to any trans library. Trans Activism in Canada is also available for loan from the Ottawa Public Library.