National Consultation on Transgender and Women’s Substantive Equality

14 July 2003
July 14, 2003

NAWL organized a national consultation on transgender and women’s substantive equality rights, held in Ottawa on February 22 and 23, 2003. The consultation drew representatives from rape crisis centres, women’s equality-seeking groups, unions, government, transgender and transsexual (trans) advocates, and other interested individuals from across Canada.

The specific objective for the weekend was to lay a foundation for the development of feminist and egalitarian approaches to law reform, litigation, and social policy on trans rights that respect and promote the substantive equality rights of all women.

The consultation grew out of debates around the extension of human rights protection to trans persons and the inclusion of transsexual women in “women only spaces.” These debates have engaged feminists and women’s equality-seeking groups over the past few years and are at the heart of Nixon v. Vancouver Rape Relief Society ([2002] B.C.H.R.T. 1, online at which is currently before the Supreme Court of British Columbia on judicial review. Kimberly Nixon was turned away after seeking to volunteer as a peer counsellor at Vancouver Rape Relief in 1995. The case has polarized various members of the feminist community and, in some circles, has created a dynamic of ‘us versus them’ between women’s groups and trans communities.

During the course of the consultation, it became apparent that, beyond issues of inclusion and accommodation, there are many grave human rights violations tearing up the lives of many women and trans people, and that there is a need for effective human rights protection. It also became clear that our communities have many common goals and should strive to build coalitions and work towards human rights that will benefit all women.

Like many stigmatized groups of women, transgender and transsexual people are struggling to meet the most basic safety needs in day-to-day life. Specific and urgent concerns include, but are not limited to: access to social services such as homeless shelters, rape crisis centres, and medical clinics; access to education; access to public and private health benefits; freedom from violence motivated by hatred, including sexual assault; fear of repercussion or reprisal in retaliation for asserting one’s ordinary rights, such as speaking out in public; chronic unemployment or under-employment; abusive treatment by law enforcement personnel; public humiliation, derision, ridicule, marginalization and exclusion; and denial of access to public accommodations such as shops, restaurants, washrooms, and public transportation.

Because trans people are subject to systemic discrimination and continue to be denied the basic human rights supposedly granted to ‘all individuals,’ the possibility of achieving full personhood or full benefit of the law-the possibility of social equality-requires substantial social and legal reform. The question is not whether trans persons should be granted rights and freedoms, be they to social services, employment and medical care, but how?

With respect to potential law reform initiatives, some of the suggestions that were brought forward during the consultation include: adding “gender identity” to federal, provincial and territorial human rights codes; seeking legislation that would require all public spaces to provide single stall unisex washrooms; and eliminating the requirement that one’s sex be designated on personal ID cards.

cj rowe is the consultation coordinator and is a member of the Lesbian Working Group and the Working Group on Trans Issues.

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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