Members of transgender and non-binary communities say they’re seeing concerning signs that transphobic ideology is worsening in Canada.
Anti-trans sentiments are not new to the country, but several factors make this moment in time fraught, say activists and educators. That’s despite the fact that the federal government moved to protect the rights of transgender people in 2017 with the passing of Bill C-16, which made gender identity and expression a protected human rights category.
“The climate for trans people has improved in the last decade very considerably, but we’re definitely starting to feel some of those waves of anti-trans activism that have really taken hold in the United Kingdom and in the United States in recent years,” said Travers, a professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C, who goes by one name.
Recent media coverage, including a story by the CTV News investigative program W5 and opinion columns published by the Toronto Star and CBC, have been criticized by some members of the transgender community for pushing transphobic ideas and misrepresenting the dangers they face daily, which, according to Statistics Canada, include violence and poor mental health due to discrimination.
Among the concerning messages, say critics, are assertions that trans people who have not undergone transition-related surgery are not real men or women or that falsely paint trans women as dangerous men. Similar ideas have been spreading in the U.K. for years.
British author J.K. Rowling, for example, has made comments blurring sex (biological characteristics) and gender (personal identity) to push back against inclusive terms such as “people who menstruate,” which Rowling sees as an erosion of women’s rights.
Last month, American comedian Dave Chapelle in his Netflix special defended Rowling’s comments, prompting a walkout by the streaming company’s transgender staff and their allies. In the special, Chapelle declares, “I’m team TERF,” referring to the term trans-exclusionary radical feminists, which is used to describe people who see trans rights as not aligned with women’s rights.
“There have always been feminists who support trans inclusion, and there’s been a vocal minority of people who identify as feminists who view trans inclusion as a step backward for feminist movements. I find this very puzzling, I won’t lie,” said Travers. “It’s a very hateful message.”
Many trans people view the singular focus on biological sex as transphobic. Rowling and others who share similar views reject that label.
“My life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so,” the author of the Harry Potter series said in 2020.
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Members of trans community ‘exhausted’
In an opinion column in the Toronto Star, columnist Rosie DiManno was critical of the use of inclusive language in health care, such as using the term “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women” to acknowledge that trans men and nonbinary people can also get pregnant. Di Manno claimed the adoption of such terms was “trans activism run amok.”
In a CBC opinion piece last month, Jessica Triff, a trans woman, shared her view that activism around trans rights was becoming “toxic.” In that column, she claimed instances of trans women who haven’t medically transitioned using women’s spaces, such as gender-specific bathrooms or women’s prisons and shelters, have “proven problematic.” Critics of that view say such positioning undermines many trans identities and falsely frames trans women as being inherently dangerous to other women when accessing such spaces.
Christian Wright, the founder of the student advocacy group Rainbow Carleton in Ottawa, says while the piece was written by a trans woman, it doesn’t mean its rhetoric isn’t transphobic.
“Can gay people be homophobic? Yes. Can women be anti-feminist? Yes,” Wright said.
“Every trans person is ultimately at the end of the day, an individual. They have their own thoughts, feelings, experiences. Her opinions and her points of view are hers.”
Anna Murphy, a trans woman in Calgary and an LGBTQ activist, said seeing transphobic ideas get traction is worrying.
“I’m heartbroken because I recognize what seeing that in the media, or seeing that message or seeing that narrative, does to … those kids who are, literally, honestly just trying to go out and be welcomed and safe and affirmed in the world,” she said.
Murphy says trans and non-binary people already face barriers and that transphobic ideas could erode support and make their lives more difficult.
Progress takes time, but it should not end with us going back in time.– Anna Murphy, trans woman and LGBTQ activist
“We’re exhausted,” said Murphy. “We’re exhausted from constantly having to debate our existence. We’re exhausted by constantly having to self-advocate in the face of ignorance.”
Wright said there was a period of time where it felt like trans rights and visibility in Canada were improving — but that’s shifting.
“Maybe we were a bit naive to think that,” said Wright.
“Maybe we should have listened to community leaders who were telling us that the fight isn’t even close to over.”
In an email to CBC News, the Toronto Star’s director of communications, Bob Hepburn, wrote: “The Star, like other news organizations, gives its columnist wide latitude to express their opinions.”
About Triff’s column, CBC’s head of public affairs, Chuck Thompson, said in an email: “This is an opinion piece, and like any of them, we fully acknowledge and respect that not everyone will share the point of view presented.”
Gender-affirming health care portrayed as dangerous
Narratives presenting gender transition as dangerous have become more prevalent in international reporting, according to Kinnon MacKinnon, an assistant professor in the school of social work at York University in Toronto and a trans health-care researcher.
Stories of individuals who detransitioned — when a trans person stops a medical transition, or stops identifying as trans — commonly show up in British media, he said. By focusing on the minority of individuals who have detransitioned, particularly as a result of regret about their initial transition, media stories, including the one by W5, imply it’s a common phenomenon when, in fact, it’s rare.
The W5 story included the perspective of an Ontario man, 20, who had transitioned and found it life-saving but also featured two individuals from the U.K. expressing regret over transitioning.
“The U.K. has been, for a number of years, using the stories of detransition and a very limited sample of detransitioners to invalidate trans identities in a very alarmist, sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine manner,” said MacKinnon.
Bell Media, the parent company of CTV News, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
MacKinnon, who is currently leading research on the topic, said an analysis of the available data suggests that only around one per cent of people who undergo gender-affirming surgery express regret. MacKinnon says that for some, detransitioning is part of a journey to better understand their gender identity.
An analysis recently published in the peer-reviewed journal LGBT Health of more than 17,000 individuals who reported they had transitioned — which may or may not include surgery — found that around 13 per cent had detransitioned at some point.
The authors noted that, in the majority of cases, approximately 83 per cent, respondents identified external sources for their decision to detransition, including pressure from family and social stigma. Nearly 16 per cent of respondents reported at least one internal driving factor, such as fluctuations in or uncertainty in their gender identity.
Beyond the media, some anti-trans activists also claim that aspects of gender-affirming health-care practices are damaging to young people. For example, the website of one Canadian group claims puberty-blocking drugs, which some young patients may be prescribed to halt puberty-related development, will lead to “sterilization and loss of sexual function and pleasure.”
“When you hear, ‘People want to sterilize your children,’ you get people concerned, but it’s not a representation of the truth,” Wright said.
According to Trans Care B.C., there are no known irreversible side-effects of puberty blockers. The St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, for example, notes on its information page about puberty blockers that because they are meant to be temporary, they alone should not harm a child’s future fertility, but it’s possible that hormone therapy may affect fertility.
The consequence of misinformation and anti-trans narratives, says MacKinnon, is that access to gender-affirming health care, including hormones and surgeries that could benefit the well-being of those experiencing gender dysphoria, risks being limited or cut.
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New legislation called regressive
Shifts on the political landscape also have members of trans communities on edge.
The Quebec government last month announced Bill 2, which would amend the province’s family law and create separate designations for sex and gender identity on official documentation. The bill would also limit changing sex identifiers to those who have medically transitioned.
“The bill outs trans people,” said Florence Ashley, a jurist and PhD in bioethics at the University of Toronto.
Ashley says if the bill passes, separate gender identity markers would typically only apply to those who are trans.
“It promotes this idea that trans people aren’t really the sex that they claim to be,” Ashley said.
The proposed legislation comes in the wake of a Quebec Superior Court decision forcing the province to reword parts of the Civil Code that discriminate against transgender and non-binary individuals.
The court also ruled that non-binary Quebecers must be given the right to change the sex designation on a birth certificate to match their gender identity.
Since announcing Bill 2, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said he is open to finding better solutions.
“There’s really a fear of this law passing,” said Ashley. “And there’s also the sense of like, ‘Wow, the government is so disconnected from the realities of trans people that we can’t really trust them to protect our rights.'”
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Anti-trans voices disproportionately harmful
Ashley says that anti-trans voices have an outsized impact on the transgender community.
“The problem is the people who are inclusive of trans people … mostly, in practice, have a neutral impact on the lives of trans people,” they said.
“The best that they do is not be transphobic, not interfere with the well-being of trans people, whereas the people who are against trans people are very negatively impacting them.”
Freedom of expression is important, says Anna Murphy, but it’s necessary to hold people accountable if they’re promoting harmful ideas.
“Trans women are women; trans men are men,” she said.
“If people can just keep that in their minds and go forward with that thought, then, you know, we might get somewhere. Progress takes time, but it should not end with us going back in time.”
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