Remembering trans lives lost … and agitating for change, in Canada and abroad

November 20, 2015

Today is the 17th International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Since 1999, this day has been an opportunity to raise public awareness of the ongoing violence experienced by trans people, and to honour the lives of those trans people murdered because of stigma and hate. It is an appalling global tragedy that, even in 2015, the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project is reporting — and no doubt under-reporting — the murders of 271 trans people, targeted simply because of who they were.

Many readers may think such violence does not occur in Canada. The TMM-reported homicide of Sumaya Dalmar Ysl, a 26-year old Somali immigrant, in Toronto on February 2, shows there is no cause for complacency.

Certainly, thanks to a combination of sustained community mobilizing, strategic litigation in the courts, and the leadership of some elected officials, there has been significant progress in recent decades in Canada for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This has included securing legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and explicit recognition in the federal Criminal Code that hate crimes may target people because of sexual orientation, as well as equal recognition of same-sex relationships. (Work still remains, of course, including purging from the text of the Criminal Code provisions that purport to criminalize consensual sex between adults and that have repeatedly been declared unconstitutional by the courts.)

But trans people still regularly face human rights violations in Canada, including lack of access to appropriate health care, denial of appropriate identification documents, and ongoing discrimination, harassment and violence. (And the human rights of intersex people are still only just beginning to occasionally attract attention, such as in this statement supported by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network at the UN Human Rights Council.)

In the last Parliament, Bill C-279 sought to include gender identity as grounds for protection in the Canadian Human Rights Act and in the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code. But despite passing in the House of Commons, and receiving the endorsement of over 100 civil society organizations, including the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the bill was ultimately defeated by transphobic ideology in the Senate.

Canada’s incoming federal government must correct course and respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of all its constituents, including trans and intersex people. Fortunately, early signs are encouraging. During the federal election, in responding to questions from the Legal Network, four out of the five federal parties represented in Parliament went on record in favour of legal reforms to defend the rights of trans people. The Liberal Party, now elected with a majority government (in the House of Commons), affirmed that it would “introduce government legislation that will ensure that Trans rights are defended fully and completely.” Happily, the government seems poised to uphold these commitments: Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate letter to his Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould includes introducing new legislation to add gender identity as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and to the list of distinguishing characteristics of “identifiable group” protected by the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code.

On the global stage, the role of Canada’s government is no less urgent. More than 80 countries still criminalize consensual sexual activity between people of the same sex. Many more have other laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In numerous parts of the world, LGBTI people are routinely arrested, denied basic job protections, health care, housing and parental rights, while many are brutally attacked, tortured and murdered. These atrocities also have disastrous consequences for HIV testing, prevention and treatment efforts.

In 2015, a group of civil society organizations in Canada, including the Legal Network, came together to form the Dignity Initiative, with the twin objectives of strengthening both Canada’s foreign policy commitment to defending human rights for LGBTI people internationally, and global solidarity work by Canadian civil society groups. Our Call to Action is being broadly endorsed by organizations Canada-wide. During the election campaign, the Liberal Party committed to “work with groups like the Dignity Initiative” to protect and promote the human rights of LGBTI people, in Canada and globally. We are already engaging the newly elected government in discussion about implementing the Dignity Initiative’s recommendations in Canadian government foreign policy, international development initiatives, and its treatment of LGBTI refugees and refugee claimants.

And for those who recognize the urgency of the situation facing trans and intersex people worldwide, today is a good day to ensure that our government lives up to its ideals and promises. Write, tweet, call. Find your MP’s contact info (including email) here, and let them know that the promise of universal human rights must include the rights of trans and intersex people, in Canada and around the world.

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