Rupert Raj: Dancing the Dialectic

The subtitle to this book does not lie. Rupert Raj was the trailblazer for trans activism in Canada. He has been a writer, publisher and gender consultant, and a mental health practitioner to the larger queer community, and he’s done this in four Canadian cities: Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

RupertRaj1Born in Ottawa in 1952 to an East Indian father and a Polish mother, Raj lost both parents in a car accident when he was 16. At age 18, he had himself admitted to the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Here he encounters several transphobic psychiatrists before he is eventually referred to a sympathetic clinical social worker with some knowledge of transsexualism. She directed him to the book Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, by Dr. Richard Green and Dr. John Money. Finally finding a way forward, he flew to New York in 1971 to be prescribed testosterone, his brother having to sign for him as he was only 19. He had top surgery at age 20, but given the state of bottom surgery for trans men at the time, that procedure had to wait. Despite living and appearing as a male, his legal status with all associated documentation would not be changed until 1978.

Returning to Ottawa from New York, he decides “to educate the world about transsexuals.” Considering the transphobic times, he embarks upon his activism with fearlessness, but is mostly operating alone. Over the years he would discover that his enthusiasm wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of support he had. He often held low paying jobs, and with few people helping him, and no chance of government or corporate support the inevitable result was burnout, which Raj suffered on several occasions throughout his activist career.

(Raj’s early activism in Ottawa can be found on the Ottawa Trans History page of this website.)

Some highlights of his activism after he left Ottawa include the creation of the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT), which was eventually to have several branches across Canada, and the publishing of Gender Review from 1978 to 1981. In 1982 he wanted to focus on trans men so started Metamorphosis, which he incorporated the following year as the Metamorphosis Medical Research Foundation, the goals of which were to educate trans men on the latest medical developments about phalloplasty and to secure funds for medical-technological research. A Metamorphosis newsletter followed and was succeeded by a 24 page quarterly magazine.

It’s remarkable how many national and international connections he made considering this activism was done pre-internet. Needless to say, he did a lot of letter writing. This was important work, however, as resources for trans men at the time were scarce. It’s notable too that he managed to do so much while still being semi-closeted. The cisgender world he worked in knew nothing of his trans activism, although he didn’t seem much concerned about being discovered since he appeared on the popular American talk show Sally Jesse Raphael. (He was disappointed by the sensationalist tone of the program, which focused on what the producers saw as the “exotic” aspect of trans lives and minimized the serious challenges trans people faced.)

Raj covers so much ground in the first half of the book that it moves along at a kinetic pace. After he acquires his degree (Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology), his activism shifts to conferences attended, papers published, and lectures delivered and this part of the book starts to read a bit like a laundry list of accomplishments. This is not to diminish them. His counseling became an important part of his activism, and finally provided him with a job that paid reasonably well. As a narrative it begins to drag, however. There’s an editor’s caveat at the end of the preface which suggests she may have suggested a different edit, but the decision to have Raj deliver his story “frankly uninhibited” was also not without merit.

In the epilogue to Dancing the Dialectic, Raj writes that he saw his memoir as, among other things, “an educational resource”. I think this is the best way to approach the book. It is packed with interesting and useful information and stories about trans activists in Canada, the US and Europe, past and present. The copious notes at the end of each chapter are themselves worthy of study. The book has no index, however, which handicaps its usefulness. Nonetheless, this is a must have reference for anyone interested in the history of trans activism in Canada.

Raj received numerous awards over the years for his service to the community. In 2013 the Rupert Raj fonds were housed in The ArQuives (formerly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives). He has lived in Vancouver since 2017 where he continues his activism, primarily in the areas of the environment and animal liberation.