Participants in the Trans March on Friday. Photo by Aleks Nesterins from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Last Friday, an estimated 1,500 participants took to the streets for the Trans March to draw awareness to and help end the human rights inequalities facing trans people. While gay rights in Canada are among the most progressive in the world, trans rights falls behind other groups’ considerably. “We still don’t have basic human rights for trans people in Canada,” says activist Nicki Ward. “If you beat someone up and call them a ‘fag,’ it’s a hate crime; if you beat someone up and call them a ‘tranny,’ it’s not.”
Protesters demanding equality are unlikely to find support from the government. Stephen Harper and his Conservatives voted against Bill C-389, introduced in 2009 by former NDP MP Bill Siksay—who did not seek re-election in 2011—to add “gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and to the Criminal Code sections regarding hate crimes and sentencing provisions, providing explicit protection for transgender and transsexual Canadians from discrimination in all areas of federal jurisdiction.” Bill C-389 got wiped off the table when the Conservatives called the spring 2011 election.
Trans rights activist and artist Nicki Ward. Photo courtesy of Nicki Ward.
Still, the need for a more supportive environment persists. “Transsexual and transgender Canadians face significant prejudice in their daily lives,” noted Siksay in his advocacy for the bill. “Whether it is job discrimination, access to housing and public services (especially health care), problems with identity documents, difficulties with law enforcement officials, a high suicide rate, or the increased likelihood that they will be victims of violence, the situation of transsexual and transgender people demands our attention.”
Ward links the difficult times of being trans directly to tragic results: “Suicide rates in the queer community are bad enough—they’re double or triple in the trans community. The ones that you actually see on the streets are the ones that haven’t been beaten up—beaten to death—killed themselves, or had dodgy surgery and died as a result.”
Job protection is an important goal for activists like Ward. “You can’t fire someone for being gay,” she says, “but you can fire someone for being trans.” The unemployment and underemployment of trans people worries Ward, and she cites the disturbing statistic that half of the trans community live on less than $15,000 a year, “and yet, 70 per cent have college degrees.”
Pride Toronto this year focused on trans rights as one of its three themes, along with youth rights and its overall theme of Dream Big. “Trans people are probably the last large group within the LGBTQ community that haven’t been recognized fully in terms of equal rights,” says co-chair Francisco Alvarez, adding that “they’re not mentioned in a lot of legal statutes across Canada.” Alvarez notes that this year featured three days of trans programming and involvement in the street fair.
The organization behind Toronto’s predominant Pride celebrations has been criticized for not being inclusive enough with the trans community. The first Trans March in 2009 was in fact a grassroots event, although Pride Toronto subsequently took over organization in 2010. Alvarez concedes that there is still work to be done. “[The trans community] feels that while the letter ‘T’ is in the acronym of the community, they’re not always at the table in terms of organizing and planning and making decisions and deciding how money is being spent. We’re making an effort to make them as visible in the rainbow community as are other groups at the moment.”
A flag raised bearing the symbol for a trans person. Photo by postbear from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Ward believes there’s still room for improvement. For example, she expresses disappointment that an image of a drag queen was used beside the description of the Trans March in the official Pride guide. (While drag does play with conventions of gender and identity, drag artists are not part of the trans community.) “[There’s] not even one picture of a trans person in the guide,” she notes.
In addition, Ward finds it “aggravating” that the Trans March route—which took participants down Church Street to Alexander Street before looping upon itself and ending at the 519 Church Street Community Centre—differed from the Dyke March and Pride Parade, both of which run along Yonge Street. The March also happens at night, while the other two events occur during the day: “We, trans people, should be marching where we can be seen,” says Ward.
Alvarez doesn’t see why that couldn’t happen in future editions of the Trans March. “That’s really up to the organizers of our Trans Pride committee,” he says. “If in the future they want to follow the same route, I’m sure it’s possible.” The Pride co-chair states the City shoulders the blame for the incongruity: “The city does not want to close [Yonge] street for more than two days consecutively, so that would be the only constraint. It may not be able to happen on the same day.”
Around 200 participants in the Trans March felt waiting a year was too long and marched down Yonge Street instead of Church Street. Xtra reports that the group negotiated the alternate route with police beforehand. In our interview before the march, Ward said the significance of Yonge Street was “emblematic” for its queer historical roots—Yonge Street was the original location of the queer village before it relocated east to Church Street. Ward says breaking away from the planned route was about “reclaiming our space.”
Although 2011’s Pride celebrations have come to an end in Toronto, there is still much work to be done inside and outside the queer community. “Trans rights are gay rights,” says Ward. “I’ve heard people say, ‘All the fights have been fought,’ and I say, ‘Bullshit! I know I deserve equal rights.'” In the end, for Ward, the fight for equal rights is about survival. “Trans people are resilient,” she says. “I have scars all over—I’ve been stabbed, had acid thrown at me. What makes it bearable is that every time I fought back. I don’t know how not to fight back.”