The Only Highway

July 28, 2008

In Memoriam

Shelby “Tracy” Tom

Cassandra Do

Both Murdered in 2003

On July 16, 2008, Capital Xtra and the xtra.ca website, published an editorial by Gareth Kirkby, editor/publisher of Capital Xtra and producer of the xtra.ca website. It can be found here, one of its many titles is “Highway to Nowhere”:

It is something of a denunciation of this writer―not the first to appear in Capital Xtra or on the xtra.ca website.

As a discussion of transgender and transsexual people it is curious: there is no mention of the void in fundamental human rights recognition―as if it has passed out of the discussion.

This skillful omission allows Kirkby to declare “The numbers of gays and lesbians far outweigh those of trans [sic]” and to dismiss our lives and struggles as having no significant importance either for gay and lesbian people―at least those Kirkby speaks for―and for the general public because our numbers are, apparently, small.

As with bisexual people, this is a matter of some contention as there are so few estimates even approaching some sort of accuracy regarding the numbers of transsexual and transgender people in Canada―not to mention the challenge in categorizing us.

Kirkby’s argument is quite the same one used by those opposed to gay marriage in the early 00’s and also by those in the 90’s opposed to the formal recognition of the human rights of gay and lesbian people.

The argument used by supporters of gay marriage, in the Commons and out, and of the recognition of the fundamental human rights of gay and lesbian people, to counter is that where fundamental human rights are concerned numbers are not important.

Why would it be any different for transsexual and transgender people?

Leaders of a once more marginalized minority using arguments used to marginalize them to marginalize others was something that quite surprised me when I first heard it from a vice president of Egale Canada on its main email list in 2005. But no longer.

I believe the use of such arguments is an objective measure of our ongoing marginalization. Especially if used as unselfconsciously as Kirkby does―and apparently accepted just as unselfconsciously by some.

In his editorial, Kirkby declares that

the trans struggle is one of gender expression.

This is often the way many authorities, following in the footsteps of Judith Butler, diminish the struggle for the recognition of our identities, especially of transsexual people, asserting that all gender, identity as well as expression, is simply a performance and of no deep substance.

For those who have never questioned their sex this doesn’t mean much―and is not easily understood―and cannot be used to marginalize them.

We do not expect all heterosexual people to understand the lives and struggles of gay and lesbian people and we describe this as heterosexual privilege―the conviction their lives are normative. When they assume their approach to sexuality is the only appropriate one and act on it, we call these actions heterosexism.

In much the same way, we do not expect all cissexual people―those who are not transsexual―to understand the lives and struggles of those who question their sex and we describe this as cissexual privilege―the conviction their lives are normative.

When they assume their approach to sexual identity is the only appropriate one and act on it, we call these actions cissexism.

There is a parallel argument regarding transgender people. We do not expect all cisgender people―those who are not transgender―to understand the lives of those who question their gender and we describe this as cisgender privilege―the conviction their lives are normative.

When they assume their approach to gender identity is the only appropriate one and act on it, we call these actions cisgenderism.

To be sure, there are many overlaps between transsexual and transgender people―but to pose the terms in this manner achieves a clarity often missing.

Kirkby also declares

The progress to date for gay rights has been accomplished largely through the involvement of middle-class (and now largely middle-aged) gay men and women who have organized the groups, led the occasional demonstrations and funded the legal challenges

This statement does a disservice to all the transsexual and transgender people and cissexual/cisgender people―who are neither gay nor lesbian―who have contributed money or expertise or volunteered to help gay and lesbian people move from the margins to the mainstream―in the present as well as in the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall Riots.

I myself worked for Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM).

The MP’s who voted for the Civil Marriage Bill, and all the allies of same-sex marriage, once on a database in the possession of CEM, were not all gay and lesbian but were those who believe in dignity and equality not to mention justice for all―and who believed the way to this overarching goal at that historical moment was the recognition of the fundamental rights of gay and lesbian people.

This is even as the leaders of CEM and Egale Canada stated the matter at the time.

The demonstrations in support of equal marriage in Ottawa were very diverse events. Not only were gay and lesbian people there, there were many transsexual and transgender people (not reported in Capital Xtra) as well the overwhelming majority were non-trans and non-gay people.

It is commonplace almost everywhere that the struggle for equality cannot be accomplished by those whose rights are in question alone.

In the same issue of Capital Xtra, and also on the xtra.ca website, there is a column by Marcus McCann, recently appointed Managing Editor, captioned “Maintaining our freedoms is about more than hanging on with our fingernails.” In it, McCann declares:

The gay days have come crashing down around us. . . . Of course, gay rights in Canada are here to stay.

After a review of the rise and fall of gay culture throughout history, which is basically what the column is, he states

But not Canada, surely. Not in the age of the Charter.

In the two columns, this is the closest either writer comes to mentioning human rights or equality. Then McCann goes on to call for allying with other groups, but not a single one is concerned, in his recitation, with either the formal or substantive role or recognition of human rights.Presumably this is why his struggle cannot ally with trans people.

That gay and lesbian leaders and organizations, not only Capital Xtra, have left the struggle for human rights is worth a commentary of its own―which I will be posting soon. In the short term I can offer a comment from a well-placed leader of the campaign for equal marriage, Laurie Arron.

Arron was the last National Coordinator of Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM) and Director of Advocacy for Egale Canada. Arron’s association with CEM, a creation of Egale Canada, had gone back to the public announcement of its creation on September 12, 2003.

When I began working with Egale Canada in early 2004, Arron was already well-established as Director of Advocacy―his major role was, however, not with Egale Canada but with CEM.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motion to re-open the debate was defeated on December 7, 2006, a press statement was released by CEM over the name of Laurie Arron reading, in part

As we move beyond law reform, we face the challenge of changing hearts and minds, and of making everywhere across Canada safe and welcoming for LGBT youth, LGBT seniors, LGBT families and their children.

From my own conversations with Arron throughout my time with Egale Canada and CEM, I know he was very well aware of the extensive “law reform” required to bring transsexual and transgender people from the margins to the mainstream―as indeed gay and lesbian people have moved, culminating with the recognition of their relationships in the Civil Marriage Law and Parliament’s rejection of re-opening the debate, celebrated by his statement.

I am unable to fathom why such prominent leaders of the gay and lesbian community―as measured by their roles, positions and influence―would abandon the struggle for human rights.

At one time the argument, as we used at CEM, was that the recognition of the human rights of gay and lesbian people―equal marriage was part of this human rights struggle―was part of the struggle for equality and dignity for all.

Abandoning the struggle for human rights in Canada might well be a significant reason the gay political movement has fallen on hard times since the passage of the Civil Marriage Law. The imagination of Canadians is inspired by the struggle for human rights. All Canadians, not just LGBT Canadians.

There remains one place where this inspiration might come from in the future.

For the one marginal and identifiable minority which is arguably, if not actually, the only one whose human rights have not been recognized not to have its struggle even mentioned in passing, in Capital Xtra, and seemingly declared already achieved by Arron, is curious.

Why would the leaders of the struggle that placed them in the forefront of change that expanded the realm of freedom for all abandon this struggle?

These gay men, and those they speak for, have excluded themselves from the struggle for fundamental human rights.

It is sad.