‘Rights aren’t a competition’: Anti-trans hate is on the rise in Canada, activists and advocates say

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TORONTO —
As LGBTQ2S+ people and allies await the return of Parliament to if see Bill C-6, a bill banning conversion therapy, will be passed into law, trans Canadians and activists worry that the delay could be fueling rhetoric that trans folks are a threat to women’s rights.

“Rights aren’t a competition. No trans folks are going out saying women shouldn’t have rights. Trans folks, fairly unanimously, are in favour of women’s rights, trans rights,” Fae Johnstone, trans educator, organizer and writer, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on July 21.

In fact, this notion that by granting trans people equal rights and opportunities will somehow infringe on women’s rights has been debunked by several legal experts and the Canadian Bar Association.

“Legal experts have continuously debunked that notion,” she said. “The Canadian Bar Association, in 2016, quite clearly articulated that there is no reasonable argument that trans rights infringed on women’s rights, that’s not how our legal rights structure works.”

Adrienne Smith, a trans non-binary social justice lawyer in Vancouver, said there is no threat to women’s groups by including trans, two-spirit, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.

“But if all you have known is privilege then equity and inclusion can feel like oppression, but they’re not the same thing, being prevented from discriminating against someone isn’t a loss of power for anyone who’s behaving properly,” Smith said.

Florence Ashley, a jurist and ethicist, told CTVNews.ca in an interview on Friday that anti-trans hate is on the rise not only in Canada, but elsewhere too.

“It’s coming at the same time as a rise of anti-democratic populism, which is where they want the majority to define what is the good life for everybody,” Ashley said.

And while all trans people are vulnerable to anti-trans groups, trans women of colour face the brunt of hatred, particularly as more come out publicly, advocates say.

“A lot of trans women of colour have always been experiencing a lot of hate and it’s probably heightened a bit now, but because a lot of trans women of colour have been coming out and being more visible and exposed they’re having to deal with that hate,” Yasmeen Persad, trans program coordinator at The 519, an advocacy group for LGBTQ2S+ communities in Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday.

TRACKING ANTI-TRANS HATE

Anti-trans ideology isn’t new in Canada, but those who take this stance are getting louder and more bold.

“The ideas aren’t necessarily new, but the difference is, I think a lot of TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminist) are becoming much more explicit about their beliefs and how vocal they are about it,” Sebastien Roback, a researcher with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on July 16.

Through his work with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, Roback has found that in Canada, Vancouver seems to be home to a lot of TERF and anti-trans people and organizations.

One Canadian TERF group claims that accepting trans people in “sex-segregated” spaces would be dangerous. For TERFs this means not allowing trans people to use bathrooms and change rooms that align with their gender, not allowing them to access shelters based on their gender for unfounded fear that they will prey on women and girls using these spaces.

However, it is well documented in Canada that men who are cisgender, a person whose identity and gender align with their birth sex, most often perpetrate violence against women. In 2020, of 160 Canadian women and girls killed, 128 had a male accused as the killer. In 17 of the cases, the killer remained unknown.

In fact, surveys conducted by TRANSPulse Canada suggest that many trans people in Canada actively avoid some public spaces for fear of harassment or being outed. More than two-thirds of trans Canadians avoid three or more public spaces because of this, and only 16 per cent don’t avoid any spaces. The avoidance was worse among Indigenous trans, two-spirit and non-binary people, with 76 per cent of respondents avoiding three or more spaces, and only 12 per cent not avoiding any spaces.

Tracking hate crime statistics against trans people in Canada is made more difficult by the fact that there is no dedicated organization tracking these details. The 2021 census was the first census in Canada to count transgender people living in the country.

“In 2018, about 0.2 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older indicated that they were transgender, including those who are non-binary,” Statistics Canada said in a statement.

The statement continued that the 2021 census included a new gender question and the data collected will be available next spring.

For hate crimes committed in Canada and reported to police, those with a sex-based motive have nearly tripled since 2015 from 12 to 53. There has also been a rise in total hate crimes reported to police in Canada since 2015 from 1,362 to 1,946 in 2019, peaking at more than 2,000 in 2017. 

“Hate crime collection was added to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey in 2005, giving police services the ability to track all reported hate-motivated criminal incidents. Since that time, anti-transgender hate crimes have been collected under the category of ‘Sex’ and the sub-category of ‘Other,’” Statistics Canada said in a statement.

This survey will be amended this summer, replacing the category “sex” with “gender,” the statement said.

What makes tracking hate crimes against trans people more difficult is that police stations aren’t safe spaces for trans people, activists said. Often trans folks are misgendered, called by the wrong name and mistreated by police, Persad said.

“Trans people experience different forms of hate, violence, all these different things, and not many of them reported for the same reasons of not being believed or just having to go through a system that’s transphobic,” said Persad.

Further complicating the tracking of hate crimes committed against trans people in Canada is that anybody can create a website and social media accounts under any name they want, said Johnstone, which makes it difficult to track exactly how many anti-trans hate groups are organizing.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is tracking anti-trans hate and TERF groups in the country, and one thing that’s come out of their work, is that despite labelling themselves as feminists, these groups often collaborate with conservative and far-right groups, and many of these groups are out of Vancouver.

“They’re really looking to capitalize on any signs of allyship they can get,” said Roback. “If you look at where the ideas originate from, a lot of it comes from a very reactionary application of second wave feminism theory,” said Roback.

The 1960s second wave feminist movement fell by the wayside as a more gender inclusive and global third wave feminist movement began in the 1990s. 

Some anti-trans rhetoric focuses on being “pro-science,” but Roback said that it’s a very outdated science that they’re relying on.

“The version of science that they’re advocating for is dating back in the 1970s,” he said. “That biology class in their first year of high school we were taught that you have X chromosomes and Y chromosomes. They’re stuck on that very sex essential perspective, and to them anything that’s new information has been tainted by what they call ‘gender ideology.’”

BILL C-6

Conversion therapy is the debunked practice of trying to change someone’s sexual identity, gender identity or gender expression. The “therapy” can be provided by nearly anyone from licensed psychologists, to ministers, to life coaches. It can also fall under different names such as gender critical therapy, reparative therapy and sexuality counselling.

Smith, who was a witness for the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, said that the testimony from survivors of this practice should speak for itself.

“They say that this is incredibly damaging, that it’s ruined their lives and hurt them very much, and the scientific community is unanimous that you can’t bully someone into not being queer or trans,” they said. “But that’s exactly what these processes seek to do.”

People and groups were able to submit their support or opposition of Bill C-6, and Johnstone said that what she read in the opposing submissions was troubling.

“I spent a lot of time looking through all of the submissions that were being sent to the Senate Committee on Justice that was reviewing the bill and there was a horrifying volume of both social conservative anti trans, freedom of speech, freedom of religion type language coming into submission,” she said.

And those submissions weren’t just from Jane Doe Canadian citizens.

“There was a staggering amount that were specifically from anti-trans, TERF organizations referring to things like ‘sex-based rights,’ leading to this idea that we’re forcing people on a path towards medical transition without any choice, and this idea that trans people are corrupting children,” Johnstone adds.

One such submission, reads: “Bill C-6 will allow healthy bodies to be irrevocably damaged under false claims of a gender identity that has no basis in science.” At no point in the submission do they offer any evidence to their claims.

While Bill C-6 plans to ban forced conversion therapy, it does not give the government, or anyone, the power to forcibly make anyone undergo medical transition.

Johnstone added that these organizations often emphasize children’s safety as a cover for their hatred and to draw in parents and skeptics.

“Despite the fact that credible children’s rights organizations, none of them will endorse or condone any of that,” she said. “They are quite firm: protecting children’s rights has to include banning conversion therapy.”

Many of the TERF and anti-trans groups, including those who oppose Bill C-6, brand themselves as women’s groups, which could be dangerous but Ashley said this isn’t a new tactic.

“I believe it was 1917, Vladimir Lenin wrote in the first chapter of State and Revolution that one of the most successful things the bourgeois had done with Marx’s legacy was to co-opt it, so now all the bourgeois liberals are Marxists,” they said.

We can see this trend when we look at how Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are portrayed, they added.

“It’s a very common political strategy, especially among more regressive groups, especially white ones, and by regressive I am including both liberals and conservatives here, who are trying to defend some sort of status quo, and fight against change, and this is what is happening here, the same thing, same playbook,” they said.

This strategy is also used among anti-abortion groups masquerading as feminist groups, they said.

“It’s all the same strategies of adopting the language of progressivism to push for regressive policies, and that’s harmful because it misleads people,” Ashley said

Roback believes that these groups are becoming more desperate, a sign that they are losing the fight.

“The more aggressive they get, it’s also a sign that they’re losing,” he said.

Johnstone, Smith and Ashley agree that the government fumbled this bill. What should have been easy to pass got muddled and lost along the way, they said, and now with Parliament on summer break, Smith wonders if it will pass in the fall.

“The government could have fixed this a long time ago,” Smith said. “We know they’ve got the votes. There’s no reason that we have waited this long. And now with the impending federal election, which could happen in the fall, the passage of this bill is uncertain because it still needs to get through the Senate, and we’re not sure if they’re going to sit in the fall.”

Queer and trans communities’ push and advocacy to get Bill C-6 passed may become political ammunition in the event of a federal election.

“They waited until the last day to push it through the House of Commons because they know they can politicize it during the election,” Ashley said. “It doesn’t feel great making queer and trans people, and especially trans people given what the objections to the bill are, playing hacky sack with us.”

ORGANIZED MOVEMENTS MOVE FROM ONLINE TO OUTSIDE

It’s important to remember that these organizations are not just targeting trans people online, they also have boots on the ground with increasing frequency, said Johnstone.

“We’re definitely seeing more like IRL (in real life), on the ground organizing for TERFs. That connection between local TERF groups, national and international groups, a lot of this is coming out of what’s called the Women’s Human Rights Campaign which is an international anti-trans organization,” she said.

But it’s also important to remember that we live in an online world, said Ashley. Our online identities are just a piece of who we are.

“For all these people who are being hateful online they have friends they go hang out with, they talk about their hateful views, they spread them to their other friends, and you kind of get this entire web,” they said. “Some are more extreme in how they speak on the internet, but that’s only like part of the iceberg.”

And while the internet is a place where people can be anonymous, Ashley said that a lot of the hate mail they get is from people who use their real name, real email and even their real photos.

Local chapters of anti-trans organizations are papering cities and towns with anti-trans posters and stickers, and getting them up just as quickly as trans activists and allies can take them down.

“There are folks in different communities, including in Ottawa, Vancouver and other cities, who are putting posters up every chance they get,” Johnstone said.

There’s an idea that because more trans Canadians are living openly, that things are improving, it’s becoming safer, but Ashley said this isn’t the case.

“There is a myth that things are getting better, that I see a lot, and we just need to wait it out. The reality is that’s not true, things are not getting better,” said Ashley.

Johnstone said, in Ottawa, for the last eight months anti-trans posters and stickers have been put up around the city regularly. While she said that not all violence against trans people is as a result of TERFs and their messaging, it does add to it.

“TERF rhetoric legitimizes this idea that trans people are invading women’s spaces, and that cis women should be fearful of this figure or phantom men in dresses,” she said. “That ideology, that rhetoric does result in cis people in public looking at trans people strangely and harassing trans women.”

“That legitimizes the acts of violence and harassment and TERFs are contributing to that baseline of homophobia and transphobia and creating an environment where folks are more likely and empowered to target trans people in public.”

And the COVID-19 pandemic may also play a role in the increase of anti-trans hate in Canada.

“There’s been a lot of talk around how COVID has enabled and fueled the hate movements across the board with the connection between movements and racist white supremacist groups,” said Johnstone.

And some groups have used this to their advantage, recruiting new members and organizing with their time in isolation.

“There are opportunities that have arisen through COVID that TERFs and other hate groups have leveraged to recruit to bring more folks on board and continue that narrative of: trans people are attacking everybody,” she said.

Despite being on the receiving end of hatred, Johnstone still holds out hope that TERFs will turn a new leaf and realize their mistakes and she’s ready to welcome them to the team once they are.

“This is a fight we shouldn’t be fighting, we should be fighting the patriarchy,” she said. “We shouldn’t have TERFs attacking trans people when our liberation, our hopes and dreams for the future are bound together.”

Allies need to step up and make their presence known, said Ashley.

“You need to support trans people, just as loudly and if not even louder than others hate us because just being there not discriminating, that’s unfortunately not enough to undo and outweigh the harm that’s being done by those who hate us.”

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Edited by CTVNews.ca producer Adam Ward

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