Let’s Start Being Honest About Transphobia and Homonationalism in Canada
A Reflection On Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon by Emerson Williams.
The year is 2003: Ontario and British Columbia have become the first two Canadian provinces to legalize the licensing of same-sex unions, the United Church of Canada has voted overwhelmingly to endorse same-sex marriages, and openly homophobic parliament members are being fired left and right. All around, it’s an unprecedented time for development in human rights. Undoubtedly, Canada in 2003 will go on to be revered as miles ahead in progressive policies compared to other nations. News outlets praised Canada in contrast to its southern neighbour, CNN poking fun at the state of the U.S. in a June 2003 article titled, “June is Gay Pride Month, when gay Americans press their case for change. This particular June, all they have to do is look across the border.”
But Canada has a skeleton hiding in the closet, buried under piles of headlines highlighting the shiny, new shift in the zeitgeist, a separate facet of the LGBTQ+ community; the rights of trans people are under attack all over the country. Particularly, in a little corner of Vancouver, British Columbia.
In August, the Supreme Court of British Columbia was met with an appeal for a now-famous decision in a human rights tribunal from three years earlier. In 1995, Kimberley Nixon, a trans-woman, had been denied the opportunity to train as a peer-rape counsellor with the Vancouver Rape Relief Society (VRSS), a crisis centre for women who have faced sexual violence. Despite her experience with the Battered Women’s Support Service (BWSS) and a separate halfway house working with women surviving sexual violence, Nixon was rejected after a member working for the VRSS discovered she had transitioned. B.C.’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the VRSS, saying that the organization is entitled under the Charter to uphold a “women-only” space.
Eighteen years later, Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, a case with a verdict entirely constructed on the basis of trans-identity being invalid, has in no sense been rectified. In the years following, the case was overwhelmingly stapled as some sort of twisted win for the feminists of Canada. A surplus of journals pushing this strange empowerment are littered all across the internet, utilizing information that is centered around data that has since been succeeded by new, far more understanding, accredited analyses. Ronald Paul Dyck of the University of Calgary published “Recasting Encounters Between Women and the Transgendered: A Sensitive Analysis of Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief Society”. Although, yes, very much sensitive, explaining both sides of the dispute, the piece pushes the baseless misconception of society’s values “crumbling,” repeatedly asking “what is a woman, truly?”, “do we even need the term if anyone can self-identify?”.
However, at the forefront of this was Lee Lakeman, a woman who was working with the VRSS at the time of Nixon’s training. From the title of one of her more popular pieces alone, “Sustaining Our Resistance to Male Violence: Attack’s on Women’s Organizing and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter,” the extremely biased stance of the VRSS and herself is made quite clear. As as Nixon’s lawyer in the trial and renowned Canadian LGBTQ+ rights attorney, Barbara Findlay says in “Ruminations of an Activist Queer Lawyer”, an article on her career “Rape Relief sees transsexual women as men: men in skirts, men whose only motive in going to an all-women’s space is to invade it. The wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Lakeman banked on said infamous, fearmongering, fallacy that Lakeman elaborates on when she says, “Men dominate and disadvantage women, pushing us. [women] into ‘otherness.’ Once pushed down, [women] form groups of similarly disadvantaged to defend [themselves]. We assert our freedom of association. Surely it must be we who define the membership in those groups.” She goes on to quote the baseless, uneducated ideologies of VRSS’ attorney at the time, Gwendoline Allison “The event of August 29, 1995, which should have been unremarkable, and whose result should have been obvious, has led to a challenge to the very right of Rape Relief to exist and a challenge to our understanding of what is a woman.”
A hero of many, Findlay has published numerous nuanced, commended articles and op-ed’s that assert the empirical notion that trans-women should be recognized as women and therefore, rightfully occupy the spaces women inhabit, attempting to drown out the pseudo-science of the opposition. She said in her blog in 2016, “Thanks to Kimberly, the law in B.C. is that the ground of 'sex' in human rights law protects trans people. Though Rape Relief won in the Court of Appeal, based on an argument that, like the Catholic Church, they should be exempt from anti-discrimination laws because they were a charity, all of the other women's centres had trans-inclusive policies by the time the case was done. So - lose the battle, but win the war. Kimberly Nixon is a hero whose legacy must never be forgotten.”
This intense divisiveness and transphobia existed during a period described in books and speeches as a monumental time for LGBTQ+ rights in Canada. So what does this say about the country? Canada’s secret weapon is embellishment. Contrary to what provincial textbooks will have you believe, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric didn’t go extinct suddenly in 1991 with Vfriend v. Alberta. For years, the legalization of gay marriage in 2005 has been used as proof for radical progressivsim in the north. Meanwhile, the final, negligent ruling of Nixon occurred the same year. The nation stamped as the pro-LGBTQ+ capital of the world, while taking ten steps forward for homosexual rights in policy was simultaneously taking ten steps back in regards to the protection of human rights within case law for those who fall under analogous grounds as trans individuals.
The dismissal of and ignorance to Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon is a phenomenon known as homonationalism (or ‘pinkwashing’). Coined by Jasbir K. Puar, the term refers to government officials and members of a given justice community referring to necessary landmark advancements in LGBTQ+ rights in order to either cover up and justify racist, xenophobic and aporophobic policy/affairs or distract from failures within the spaces of LGBTQ+ rights. In her acclaimed article with York University, Miriam Smith writes “The dominance of the concept of homonationalism in current discussions of LGBTQ socio-legal issues marginalizes and underestimates the extent to which legal inequality is a persistent challenge for LGBTQ communities. Our theoretical and conceptual lenses should encompass our care both for the harm of racialized homonationalism and for the harm of formal-legal discrimination against queer sexuality. The challenge to formallegal inequality should not be dismissed as mere homonationalism but, rather, taken seriously as a project to eradicate legal homophobia.”
It’s important to note that the likes of the WHO, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians, the United Nations, and the United Kingdom’s National Health Service all have since debunked the conclusions of the most popular documents that approve of the perspective of the VRSS. In 2021, we can confirm that since the first documentation of a trans person in (arguably) 5000 BC, there has never been a trend of transgender individuals (specifically, trans-women) commiting acts of violence against women in women-exclusive spaces such as bathrooms, prisons, relief shelters, etc. Despite what the VRSS believes, anecdotal evidence is and never will be consensus or all encompassing.
So as Findlay says “…lose the battle, but win the war.”
Lakeman, Lee. “Sustaining Our Resistance to Male Violence: Attack’s on Women’s Organizing and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter” (2006) Canadian Woman Studies.
Dyck, Ronald Paul. “Recasting Encounters Between Women and the Transgendered: A Sensitive Analysis of Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief Society” (2006) University of Calgary.
Findlay, Barbara. “Ruminations of an Activist Queer Lawyer” (2007) Simon Fraser University.
Findlay , Barbara. “Nominations for the kimberly nixon legacy award”, (2016), online: Barbara Findlay http://www.barbarafindlay.com/blog/nominations-for-the-kimberly-nixon-legacy-award
Bains, Camille. “Trans woman says she hopes funding cut to Vancouver Rape Crisis Group will result in policy changes”, (21 March 2019), online: The Globe and Mail https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-trans-woman-says-she-hopes-funding-cut-to-vancouver-rape-crisis-group/
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Trisha Korioth, Staff Writer. “Pediatricians say state bills would harm transgender youths”, (9 March 2021), online: American Academy of Pediatrics https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/12780
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