Is it me, or did the circus come to town? Canadian media from The Globe and Mail and The National Post on down have all seized upon a case in which the Ontario Human Rights Commission's mere willingness to hear a case about a transsexual who was not allowed access to a ladies' gym is taken as proof positive that the OHRC has lost its mind and should be abolished.
With editorial headlines like "Man, oh, man! Get that guy out of the girls' room" (Calgary Herald -- for the benefit of people who point out that the issue involves showers and not washrooms, this headline and a number of the comments that have been made demonstrate that many Canadians are not making that distinction) and "Ontario Human Rights Commission declares -- if you think you're a woman, you're a woman" (National Post), they seize upon every conceivable misconception available to them to whet the sharks' appetite.
This is being offered up as a public reply, because as of this moment, I've yet to see any of these publications devote a single column inch to contrary response (mine or otherwise) or clarification of the misconceptions about transsexuals being exploited. Plus, I'm getting tired of having to write the same letter over and over and over and seeing zero response, formal or private.
The Facts of the Case
The Ontario Human Rights Commission will be hearing a case of a woman-only gym owner, John Fulton, and looking at whether or not he refused membership or access to the facility to a pre-operative transsexual. Mr. Fulton says that he simply stated he needed time to think about it, and a week later, he received a letter demanding money. I don't know if it's true or not that there's some kind of extortion at play, but what bothers me is that the media has taken this statement of events as gospel. We've not heard the complainant's side at all.
The Media's Slant
There is a push in Canada from the resurgent right wing on a number of points. Conservatives (including the ruling federal party) have declared an intent to do away with the part of hate crimes law pertaining to hate speech. Conservatives (not including the feds) have also been pressing for the abolishment of Human Rights Commissions, with that of the Province of Ontario being top priority. These campaigns have conservative journalists and bloggers, the Roman Catholic Church and white supremacists getting into bed with each other -- I guess that as long as the banners one flies are "morality" and "free speech," nobody bothers to ask questions.
The OHRC has been under fire for some time, and recently tightened up policies to make it difficult to bring a case before them unless one has good access to money, but that hasn't been enough. Last year's ruling which reinstated Provincial Health Care funding of gender reassignment surgery is one of a number of rulings that have offended conservatives' sensibilities, with pundit Mark Steyn declaring that "the human right to a transsexual labioplasty" is among those that "tramples on real human rights including property rights, free speech, the right to due process and the presumption of innocence." (I still haven't quite figured out how.)
The Reason For Anger
People should certainly be able to decide what they are in their own minds. By all means, please, be my guest, be whatever you like -- men, women, bullfrogs, butter knives. It is (or used to be) a free country. My problem is with people who want to decide what they are in my mind. The way liberty works, they can decide what they are for themselves, and I'll decide what they are for me.
-- George Jonas, National Post
But the Ontario Human Rights Commission took this complaint seriously. Its code wraps in gender-identity with sex as a prohibited grounds of discrimination.... Sorry about the man who wants to be a woman, but we're more concerned with the women who don't want every Tom, Dick or Harry in their changing room.
-- Nigel Hannaford, Calgary Herald
Commission spokeswoman Afroze Edwards says all that matters is whether the individual considers himself a woman. Wrong. Common sense dictates that if he still has a penis, he doesn't belong in the women's gym, no matter what he thinks he is.
-- Main Editorial, Calgary Herald
The Reply (Old Hat to GLBT Folk But Apparently Entirely New To Canadian Media)
The first assumption commentators typically take advantage of is that a transsexual's gender identity is purely a delusion in their mind. The reality is not so simple: transsexuals undergo therapy, and then a minimum of one year of living as their identified gender before surgery can be obtained (in Canada's various provincially-governed medical systems, this often ends up being several years -- in Alberta, it can be 18 to 24 months on the waiting list just to get one's first appointment with a gender identity specialist).
While we don't yet know the full reason why some people have an identity that does not match their birth sex, studies in recent years have demonstrated a likelihood of a biological origin -- and shown how gender identity and physical sex develop at different times in utero (and occasionally develop incongruously). Additionally, as much as people would like to believe that anti-psychotic drugs, conversion therapy and ECT would help transsexuals "just get over it," modern medicine has realized that this approach simply does not work, and usually results in self-destruction, suicide or extreme anti-social behavior.
Aligning body to mind, however, has enabled transsexuals to become valued and successful people in society. That is why the standards of care set by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) recommend transition and surgery - as also supported by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association and the Canadian counterparts of all three.
Quite frankly, if there were an alternate solution to the transsexual dilemma that were proven to work and didn't risk losing one's spouse, children, family, friends, career, financial well-being, respectability, residence, personal safety, privacy and ability to travel freely in society, I can assure you that people with non-congruent gender identities would flock to it. While the mechanism is still uncertain, transsexuality is driven by something that is far more than a passing delusion (or a sexual fetish, as is often assumed).
The incident is also being characterized as a "shakedown." While I can't know the motive of the person bringing the claim, I can assure you that transsexuals who raise issues such as this do so at great risk to their personal privacy, and sometimes (if their identity becomes known) also to their safety. I will also point out that to date, only one party is speaking to the media and only one perspective on the events has been disseminated.
People with transsexual histories most often value "stealth," which is the ability to live unnoticed in society - some of this is because stealth can be the most appropriate conclusion to a transsexual's journey, but some of it is certainly from the fear of discrimination or potential violence typically faced by marginalized and misunderstood minorities. There is a Day of Remembrance set aside every year to recognize the large number those who have been murdered simply because of their gender identity or gender expression.
This brings us back to the original question as to whether it is reasonable to expect the owner of a women-only gym to allow a pre-operative transsexual to use the facility. There are two primary areas of concern in that discussion: respect for privacy, and potential for risk. The latter can be addressed quickly and easily.
The last time I checked, allowing a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual to use a women's changing room still did not change the fact that inappropriate behaviors in privacy facilities were still subject to legal consequences. Since protections for transsexuals were first introduced in Minneapolis, MN in 1975, over 120 jurisdictions in North America have allowed TS women to use public facilities in explicit legislation -- even pre-operative (most of them are listed here).
Only once has this been used to justify seemingly predatory behavior... at a gym in Gaithersburg, in an incident that a group called Citizens for Responsible Government admitted to staging, in order to raise fears about such legislation. There is no statistical evidence to support the specter of predatory behavior in women's spaces by transsexual women.
Respect for privacy is a more subjective issue, and I can only point out that transsexual women are just as concerned about their own privacy as any other woman -- and in turn are just as inclined to respect others' right to privacy. Many gyms offer privacy stalls for changing clothes, and I'd expect that someone who is pre-operative would prefer to use them. Likewise, satisfactory arrangements can almost always be made regarding showers.
Gender Dysphoria (the medical classification for transsexuals, sometimes also called Gender Identity Disorder) is most often accompanied by a person's own aversion to their own genitalia, and it is certainly uncharacteristic for a preoperative male-to-female transsexual to allow that to be exposed to anyone else (most also "tuck" to ensure that even when dressed, nothing is visible).
In the end, the only genuine argument that remains is that other gym patrons may experience the "squick factor" -- the fears that exist based on misconceptions and misunderstandings of transsexuals. This epidemic of fear will probably persist for as long as the reality is shouted down by sensationalist press, and shamed into hiding.
Until the overwhelming societal condemnation that pushes people of transsexual histories into stealth changes, few will be willing to share the truth about their lives, and the public will not see that the reality is far less "creepy" than at first imagined. As much as one might sympathize with the "squick factor," misinformed prejudice is not considered justification for any kind of segregation, and instead needs to be challenged.
By the standards set by WPATH, it is appropriate for a transitioning woman to use ladies' facilities, and to some degree even required as she adjusts to living as female. Certainly, using a male facility is inappropriate and often unsafe. And presenting as one's birth sex in order to conform to others' standards is considered by the WPATH Standards of Care as reneging on one's commitment to transition - not to mention a serious step backwards. Transsexuality is not a new phenomenon, co-existence has not been harmful to date, and the realities are far different than the perceptions being exploited by the media frenzy surrounding this case.
(OT footnote: I don't know if this means I'm "back" or not. But for the benefit of someone who I know will be reading this, screencaps had been made, IPs have been traced and should anything happen to myself, my partner, the person we're taking in until she's back on her feet, our home or anything related, the possibility of incitement will be investigated.)