Trans Activism in Canada

A collection that fights against the oppression of transgendered and transsexual people.

It has taken over 40 years for a multi-author anthology about trans activism in Canada to find its way to the press, and at last the wait is over. The new Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader was launched on May 30th at the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives on Isabella Street, in a building nestled between a bar and string of apartment buildings. Meeting my friend after the launch at the nearby local, I told him about the launch, the bustling trans activist community, and editor Rupert Raj’s legacy. “Rupert who?” he responded. He was also dumbfounded to learn that he lived next door to the CGLA. “No kidding. I must walk past that place every day.”

It is quite a feat that despite its citizens’ cultural and ideological differences, Toronto is a relatively safe and laissez-faire metropolis. It is an urban body with a number of hearts, its pulses various and arrhythmic. It consists of countless nested communities all coexisting—all with particular interests, aims, political and social affinities. But overall, people mostly keep to themselves.

Peaceful coexistence can easily turn to indifference, and I occasionally find Toronto’s live-and-let-live character jarring, placid, cold—the city is a closely-packed set of insular spaces, with each community self-contained and generally uninterested in the aims of others. This is preferable to violent social clashes, of course, but there seems to be a widespread lack of interest in cultivating a genuine awareness about surrounding communities—even those in immediate geographic proximity, sharing the same street corners, the same facilities, the same landmarks. I wonder if this is the inevitable reality of living in such an eclectic city, and whether we can do more to foster cross-community conversation. 

For instance, while I’ve always considered myself a passive supporter of trans activist efforts, I myself had never heard the name Rupert Raj until I attended the launch for Trans Activism in Canada.

My preliminary research showed that Raj was one of the editors of the anthology, and that he worked as a psychotherapist specializing in gender and sexuality issues in Toronto. I didn’t know that he received the City of Toronto’s Access, Equity, and Human Rights Pride Award in 2007, and the Community One Foundation’s Steinert & Ferreiro Award in 2010. I didn’t know he was inducted into the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives on May 3, 2013 and had his portrait hung in the archives’ National Portrait Collection, along with a selection of his work. I didn’t know that he was a legend in the trans activist community in Canada, and that he had dedicated a tireless 42 years of his life to trans activist pursuits across the country, from one coast to the other. After 30 minutes in the room, this became an embarrassing admission indeed.

Trans activism and trans advocacy has been very much alive in Canada, particularly since the early 1970s. Trans activists have spent decades pursuing changes in political and social policy on behalf of transgendered people and their allies. By navigating bureaucracy and gauging involvement with non-profit organizations and school boards, they have attempted to abolish constraining stereotypes and provide a professional platform for trans advocacy.

In the spirit of documenting and celebrating almost 50 years of trans activism across the country, the Canadian Scholars’ Press, along with editors Rupert Raj and Dan Irving, banded together to produce Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader, an anthology with over 40 contributors, to be used in colleges and universities across the country (preview it here). Of all the literary events I’ve attended in the past, this launch proved to be the most moving and exciting.

The anthology is a groundbreaking project. The first of its kind, the compilation is meant to bring together a plethora of perspectives from scholars, activists, and clinicians. It explores the first-hand experiences of trans people, trans activists, and their allies. It addresses the legacy of gender identity clinics and their shifting role. It deals with the social stigma surrounding trans identity, and the different challenges faced by visible and non-visible trans people. It highlights desired changes in social representation and media, and explores the adverse aims of various trans advocates.

Trans Activism in Canada

Rupert Raj, fighting the good fight …

At the launch, editor Dan Irving discussed the challenges of compiling and editing so much original work. The production of the anthology had clearly resulted in many sleepless nights and a number of unforeseen challenges. Creating an inclusive anthology that did not privilege a particular perspective and was willing to admit dissonant views about the future of trans activism involved immense care and qualification.

“A question we had at the beginning was, How do we want to define ‘trans’? What does it actually mean? It is an identity. It is people who transgress the sex and gender binary; it’s also a politic. Rupert and I discussed early on the way to resist further fragmentation by not creating a division between trans and non-trans identified trans activists. While not all contributors are trans-identified, all are trans activist.”

The divide between trans and non-trans trans activists was not the only binary Irving and Raj wished to overcome. “We didn’t want to limit what activism means,” said Irving. Activism ranges from intense protest to the quiet writing of poetry. For some, activism can be as simple as continuing to lead a life. “Navigating one’s personal, everyday spaces is a courageous and political act.”

The book outlines some of the huge successes won by trans activists in recent years, and discusses many of the challenges trans advocates continue to face.

The triumphs have been numerous. For instance, in 2008, hardworking activists helped pressure Ontario’s Liberal government to restore funding for sex reassignment surgery that the Harris government did away with. In 2012, the Ontario Human Rights Code was changed to include “gender expression” and “gender identity,” and an amendment was made to the Vital Statistics Act so that people would not have to undergo surgery before being permitted to change their birth registrations.

One of the anthology contributors, a member of the RNAO (Registered Nurses Association of Ontario), helped develop an interest group for self-identified queer/trans nurses and their allies. This was the first professional body in Canada to develop a position paper protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, which they hope will provide a template for other professions to provide similar support. They are now pressing the Minister of Health for nurse practitioners to be able to prescribe testosterone to patients going through readiness assessments, particularly patients outside the city where gaining access to these hormones is particularly challenging.

But there is still work to be done. Dan Irving discusses some of the challenges still facing the trans community in his interview with; among them are “the systemic erasure of trans people, especially those who occupy the lower echelons of trans communities,” as well as the problematic politics of representation.

At the launch, one contributor discussed how trans people are seen as “clients of the mental health sector,” instead of being treated in the sphere of social work. “The pathologization of trans people—and particularly transsexual people—is evidence of the heteronormative sex/gender regime,” says Irving. “Medical, psychiatric, and psychological ‘experts’ label transsexual people as ‘abnormal,’ ‘mentally ill,’ and ‘deviant.’”

While all these concerns are explored in the Trans Activism in Canada reader, the book’s greatest feat is striking a balance between theoretical engagement and large-scale accessibility. The work includes critical papers from PhD professors, personal accounts from trans people and activists, case- and community-based research from clinicians, and even poetry.

“When we conceptualized the book, part of it was keeping my own experiences in mind—needing to find yourself on the spine of that book. I wanted somebody to be able to go into a store and be able to find themselves, or somebody resembling them, in this book, to pull it down, and to be able to read it.”

For this to be possible, accessibility was key. While Trans Activism in Canada is meant to be an academic tool to inspire new directions of advocacy among students in trans studies or LGBTQI2S courses, it was crucial that the book be “desired reading and not just required reading,” and that it be inclusive of, and appealing to, a diverse readership.

The anthology has been met with much positive acclaim, and has generated a great deal of excitement in the world of scholarship and beyond. Susan Stryker, the author of Transgender History, calls it “a supremely useful book: a document of what has been accomplished, an encyclopedia of what’s happening now, a who’s who of activism, and a road map to the future as we bend the long arc of the universe toward justice for trans people.”

The editors insist that this is the first anthology about trans activism in Canada. “It is really the first of its kind,” said Raj. “And there are still so many barriers to overcome.” Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 40 years to see another.

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