When a ‘case’ is not just a ‘case’

I am on an email list for people who work in the social services. There are people from many different groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities and religions. It is mostly focused on a rather narrow subject but, from time to time, other stuff is posted.

The other day one of the list members posted a link. This person prefaced the link by saying it was a good example of questions, posed by lawyers, at a tribunal hearing. The case he posted was that of Kimberly Nixon vs Rape Relief. It was her human rights case.

Immediately, I was livid. How dare this individual exploit Kimberly Nixon in this way! I don’t care that the Supreme Court found for Rape Relief, they don’t get everything right. The other thing that pissed me off was that this case had nothing to do with the topic of the list and seemed to have been presented without any thought. I am sure there were equally compelling cases that did not exploit a trans woman.

I fired back an email. What I found interesting was that my initial draft began with: “It is just my opinion…” I read again and couldn’t believe that I was about to soft shoe this one and try to diminish what I knew to be wrong. I re-wrote it. I replied that posting this case, as an example, was inappropriate as the case dealt with a great deal of discrimination leveled at Kimberly by Rape Relief. I pointed out that she Rape Relief discriminated against her because she was not a ‘woman-born-woman.’ I told him that I was sure there were lots of great cases out there that did not focus on discrimination against a trans woman.

He has yet to reply. The other responses to the thread have run about 50/50. Half of the people responding ignored my comment and the other half have tried to take me on. Then of course we have the peanut gallery who tried to restate for me the purpose of the post being an example of good questions being posed at a Human Rights Tribunal. I have also been told that it was Kimberly Nixon’s team who invented the term ‘woman-born-woman’ to describe those of us born as women so that she could have the term ‘woman.’ Personally, I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that. I am not sure where the description came from but I do not believe Kimberly Nixon and her lawyers invented it. In fact, I was peripherally involved through some other non-profit work at the time and I don’t recall hearing that at all. I could be wrong.

What I find interesting here, besides my own reaction to soften my stance, is how people can just ignore discrimination when they see it. What do they do if they are faced with blatant racism? Do they ignore it or do they sit in a little bubble claiming that they are not racists? I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that I had to say something. I could not let that go by without telling everyone that it was unacceptable.

Standing up and voicing our disgust about overt discrimination on gender identity (make no mistake, Kimberly was not allowed to be a Rape Relief volunteer because of her status as a trans woman) was reprehensible to me at the time and remains so now. Being told that the Supreme Court eventually sided with Rape Relief, by one of the other list members, only pissed me off more. Supreme Courts here and in the US have upheld all sorts of discriminatory practices for as long as we have had courts. The only reason this changes is because society changes and it is no longer deemed acceptable in polite company. One only needs to look at the fight for same-sex marriage and the role of the courts.

What really disturbs me is the half that ignored my comments. One can only assume that their silence is tacit agreement. This really makes me wonder how they handle their own issues and how they work with clients. Do they subscribe to an anti-oppression framework or are they out there imposing their values on other people? I fear for the transfolk who have to go to any of these people for help. What kind of experience do they have?

When I worked on the DTES in a welfare office we have a significant number of transfolk. One of the things I noticed amongst some of my colleagues was a tacit acceptance being given to transfolk but if there was an issue, they immediately referred to them by their birth name. I was appalled at this practice and I challenged it. What ended up happening was that I then handled all of the trans clients who came to the office. I also advocated that the supervisor note on the information field the name the client wishes to be called. I made this suggestion for several reasons: it would allow us to respect people’s choices. However, there was another more compelling reason to do this – client safety. It was simply not safe for trans clients to be called by the incorrect first name. Even though my supervisor was ‘a member of the tribe’ it fell on deaf ears. I hope things have gotten better in those offices but I doubt it.

I think we must always be vigilant and challenge discrimination when we see it. I know that I will continue to do my best to continue to educate myself and ensure that I am doing the best that I can. I can only control myself. However, if anyone wants to listen (and even if they don’t) I will express my views to all who want to hear.

“Mine is ok but yours is not”

The title seems to capture the attitude of the government of Quebec when it comes to religious symbols. I was listening to “As it Happens” on the radio today. They were covering a recent introduction of legislation regarding the display of religious symbols in government offices, hospitals and schools. The niqāb and burka, were the items mentioned. Referencing the secular nature of Quebec, the legislation singles out religious paraphernalia that covers the face. As the conversation with a female Quebec politician (I presume) went on to discuss other religious items like crucifixes for example which would be deemed acceptable. Clearly a double-standard exists.

This legislative change (if it passes) will only affect women as it is women who wear the niqāb and the burkqa. I have no desire to get into the debate about how a woman comes to wear either garment. Discussing whether it is religious or a woman’s choice is not a salient point to this issue. The bottom line is some women wear these garments because they believe they are required to do so. Yes, it may be more cultural than a religious requirement but it does not really matter because the women wearing these garments believe they must. It is similar to the belief held by Sikhs with regard to their hair – both on their heads and their faces.

The legislation will require women either services givers or those receiving services, in a government office, hospital or school cannot have her face covered. The government believes it has the right to force these women (which, as of last year, numbered 10) to uncover. Citing concerns around identification and service quality, the Quebec government believes it has grounds to force this change on women.

When the conversation moved to discuss other religious symbols like, say, a crucifix, it was deemed an acceptable symbol because it had history in Quebec. Clearly this is complete hypocrisy. If a crucifix is ok on a nun working in a hospital, she can keep it on while at the same time forcing her pregnant burqa-wearing patient to remove her head covering even though her god dictates that she must wear something to cover her face and hair because that is only for her husband to see.

As the discussion went on they discussed the roots of this legislation. It would seem that Quebec fancies itself to be in the same league as France, who as a republic, believes it has the right to impose similar legislation. However, Quebec is not a sovereign nation and while it may be a ‘nation inside a nation’ it does not give it the right to deviate so far from Canadian norms of cultural acceptance in a multicultural milieu. Quite frankly, this legislation defies all that is Canadian. A three or four hundred years of Catholic history does not give it precedence over other religions. Following Quebec’s logic the only religious items displayed should be First Nations.

Once all the arguments have been made and legislation passed, the only people who are going to suffer are the women. If devoutly religious women are forced to uncover their faces in a culturally insensitive government office they are just not going to go there. This means they may forego social assistance applications if they are poor or single parents. Medical care may be delayed until it is too late and forget pre-natal care. What happens with children? How are these women to get medical care for their children?

This legislation is oppressive. Canada welcomes immigrants under the assumption that we are an open and pluralistic society. We cannot open our doors to the world and then impose our values on them when they get here. Instead of legislating these women into silence, we must find a way to accommodate them within our system while respecting their religious beliefs. Creative ways can be found to make this happen. To do this we must have the collective courage of our convictions. As a Canadian, I am disgusted.