“I lost everything when I became a male.”

2015 brought a great deal of attention to many high profile transgender individuals. Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian, graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Television programs Orange is the New Black and Transparent were celebrated by industry and audiences. In Manitoba, the province appointed its first transgender judge. In B.C., the University of Victoria established the first academic chair in Transgender Studies. In Ontario, the government dramatically expanded the referral process for gender reassignment surgery and issued improved policies for transgender inmates.

These changes reflect important milestones for the acceptance of transgender people in society.

The term transgender includes intersex people, people who transition (either medically or socially), two-spirit people, and gender non-binary or non-conforming people.

Challenges remain for transgender people in their everyday lives. Whether they work in retail, finance or the arts, many transgender people still experience discrimination. Lagging legal protections, outdated policies and intolerance create unnecessary barriers. Employers, as well as colleagues, often struggle to accept a person’s transition.

“I felt like I was a man in the skin of a woman and I had no choice but to do this.”

Take Toronto musician Lucas Silveira. The singersongwriter thought working in a creative field would make it easier to transition. However, the members of his all-female band, all lesbians, felt uncomfortable with his decision. “It was the biggest heartbreak of my life. A lot of the lesbians I knew had a preconceived notion of masculinity as being aggressive,” recalls Silveira, who began his gender transition when he was 32, a decade ago. “I lost everything when I became a male.”

The band he founded broke up, and Silveira had to forge on alone, as he struggled with the unknown impact of hormones, fearful the therapy would ruin his voice. (Fortunately, because he took a very low dose, it didn’t.)

 

“I felt like I was a man in the skin of a woman and I had no choice but to do this. I would wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and feel like I didn’t know who I was. But it caused a lot of issues with my band, my manager and my whole artistic identity,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Silveira, who continues to support himself as a musician, found a new audience in the trans community. But his struggle for acceptance is a common one. “A gender transition can scare people. People think you are mentally ill. It’s a huge stigma,” he says. “And, it is so visible so it isn’t something people can ignore.”

A 2011 survey on trans people in Ontario found that 18 per cent of respondents have been turned down for a job because of their trans identities, 73 per cent have been made fun of and 26 per cent have been assaulted.

2011 Survey

Discrimination of transgender people in Ontario

73%

Made fun of

26%

Assaulted

18%

Turned down for a job

33%

Working full-time

“Trans people challenge normative understanding of sex and gender. A cultural change in how we conceptualize gender is required for greater inclusion and safety.”

The survey, of 433 trans people, found that only one third were working full time, despite the fact that 71 per cent had at least some college or university education. The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), also found that many people did not have identity documents that reflected their lived gender, impacting everything from their ability to drive, cash a cheque and access services. This issue also affects job-hunting, especially for trans individuals trying to limit the disclosure of personal information to prospective employers.

As well, many transgender people have to field intrusive questions about the nature of their surgery.

“A trans body is considered public. People are curious and many people have prurient questions. It can be very difficult,” notes a spokesman for Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, a national advocacy organization that promotes the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Trans people challenge normative understanding of sex and gender. A cultural change in how we conceptualize gender is required for greater inclusion and safety.”

Trans rights and support groups are growing in cities and regions across Canada. Some, like the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, offer information on a wide range of trans rights issues, from voting to education.

While some companies — including Coca Cola and Apple — have specific guidelines on how to support trans employees, many do not.

Egale offers diversity training for employers, and recommends companies make inclusion of diverse gender identities and expressions a core value.

As Judge Kael McKenzie, appointed to the Manitoba court, said: “I’m just one example of many of my colleagues who are attaining certain levels of notoriety that can show people we are just people... we can achieve whatever we want to do with hard work and dedication.”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission will continue to press for the rights of transgender people to be made explicit in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Egale recommendations for inclusion as a core value:

  • Be open-minded about people’s gender history and gender
  • Allow trans people to use the washroom of their gender identity, and provide gender-neutral bathrooms as another inclusive option
  • Use gender-neutral language such as “hello everyone,”rather than “hello ladies and gentlemen”
  • Cultivate a culture of inclusion so that regardless of someone’s identity, they can function within the work space