I’ve been involved in working for queer rights in the arena of electoral politics for quite some time now, so it’s a little odd that yesterday was my first time watching a debate in the House of Commons in person. About twenty or so queer and trans people and me sat in the public galleries and watched the second hour of debate on Bill C-389, the bill proposed by queer NDP MP Bill Siksay to add gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code.
The bill covers both gender identity and gender expression. This is important because it spreads its protection as widely as possible, to cover transsexual and transgender people as well as people (like me) whose gender presentation is at variance with what society expects of us. As an example, when Khadijah Farmer, a cissexual woman, was thrown out of a New York City restaurant (in Greenwich Village on Pride Day, for pete’s sake) for using the women’s washroom because she was read as a man by the bouncer, she successfully won a settlement under New York City’s ordinance banning discrimination based on gender presentation. A law professor was quoted as saying that if she had had to sue based on New York State’s statute banning discrimination based on sex, she would have had more difficulty.
Furthermore, explicitly including both gender identity and expression will lead to conversation around the discrimination that targets trans and gender-variant people. As Bill Siksay said,
Accessing these protections through a convoluted process using other possibly related categories, usually the categories of sex and disability, diminishes the protection and limits our understanding of the causes and effects of the particular discrimination. A right that has to be explained is not a particularly effective right.
Back to my day. I have often seen the inside of the Commons chamber on CPAC, and a few times on brief visits, but never had a chance to study it for a long time, and it’s quite beautiful. I’ve long admired the Gothic revival architecture of our parliamentary precinct, but the inside of the chamber glows with lush stained glass and is decorated with rows of detailed, otherworldly allegorical carvings (allegory is my favourite genre of visual artwork) and a gorgeous linen covering on its ceiling, painted with coats of arms.
It was the first time ever that trans and gender-variant people’s rights have ever come to a debate in the House. And we picked a good day to watch, because somewhat unexpectedly, the bill was passed at second reading immediately, without going to a vote! (The procedure is referred to as “on division”). The joy in the galleries was palpable: both the surprise and relief (we thought there would have to be a vote, which would have been the next day) and the joy of having our issues undergo serious consideration by our legislators. Our communities have so thoroughly been ignored up till now that in many cases we simply lack any instinct to submit our grievances to our elected representatives — what would be the point? we feel.
Any extent to which I’ve been able to overcome both that complete radio silence and the feeling of preemptive disenfranchisement that it produces has been the most rewarding part of my work. Yesterday, I felt an excitement about the political process that, certainly under our present government, has at times been damned hard to sustain.
(Also as part of my trip, I had a chance to have lunch with a marvellous femme dyke friend who’s one of the main inspirations behind this blog.)
There is still a ton of work to do. The bill now goes to committee, which will be the first time that trans and gender-variant people have a chance to speak on the subject in Parliament (several MPs noted this fact during the speech as a reason it was so important to get this bill to committee). It must pass through all the remaining stages — committee, two House votes, and the Senate — before Parliament is dissolved for the next election, in order to become law. I’ll keep you updated on its progress.