Bill C-16, which adds “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the Canadian Human Rights Act, is currently winding its way through the Senate, after being sent up by theHouse of Commons last November. Experts have recently been invited to share their perspectives; one such group was Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (VRRS).
You might remember VRRS as the lead villain in the Kimberly Nixon case. Twenty-two years ago, Nixon filed a human rights complaint after the organization rejected her volunteer peer rape counselor application. VRRS argued that because Nixon was trans, she was socialized from birth as a male and therefore did not have the “proper life experience.” In other words, VRRS decided Nixon was a man and was ineligible to volunteer. After a 12-year court battle, the B.C. Court of Appeal ultimately ruled in favour of VRRS.
Despite the fact that the last 20 years has seen an increasingly deepened and empathetic conversation emerge about trans people, VRRS appears to have continued to live under a rock. According to a recent CBC article, VRRS is opposed to Bill C-16 because it “threatens ‘female-born’ women’s spaces.”
The CBC quotes Hilla Kerner, a member of VRRS, as saying: “If you were born a female, you are doomed. You are doomed in our society to be second class. You do not have the privilege of growing as a male and have a choice to choose to be a woman. Surely, you cannot say these are the same thing.”
Honest to God: from one cisgender woman (and feminist) to another: can we just calm the fuck down?
Yes, misogyny and patriarchy are real and vital forces in the world. But trans women suffer under those yokes just as much as ciswomen do. Trans women don’t “choose” to be women any more than I “chose” to be queer.
I have heard accounts from many trans women who describe the intense gender policing they experienced as children, where any expressions of femininity were punished and sometimes literally beaten out of them. That is not an experience of “male privilege” and to unqualifyingly claim otherwise is to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about trans people.
But for a moment, let’s put aside the lived experience of trans women and focus on that stereotype that VRRS likes to imagine. In their version, a child is assigned male at birth and happily accepts that label through childhood and adolescence. He is bathed in the warm glow of patriarchal confidence: people tell him he can do whatever he wants. He is taught that women exist for his pleasure. He is hoisted upon his father’s shoulders and told, “everything the light touches is yours!”
Then one day, perhaps when he’s 20, he awakens to realize that perhaps she’s been a woman her whole life. She begins the process of transitioning and eases into her new life. Despite the fact that this literally doesn’t happen, even if it did it would not change the fact that that person is still a woman. You know why? Because there is no universal experience of womanhood. None.
My experience of womanhood, as a white queer ciswoman, is different from that of a white straight ciswoman, or a woman who is black, or disabled, or religious, or any of the multitude of other conditions that shape one’s gendered experiences of the world. Just because someone’s experience of womanhood isn’t your experience, doesn’t mean it’s not an experience of womanhood.
But perhaps Kerner is right to be afraid. If there is any justice in the world, Bill C-16 will usher in a VRRS run entirely by trans women.