What’s in a Name?


“Six Canadian queers,” as Xtra.ca describes them, including the executive director of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, Gens Hellquist, have filed a Federal Human Rights Complaint against Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and, somewhat secondarily, two spirit people and people who are “gender non-conforming.”

Two spirit people are mentioned in the body of the Complaint, not at the beginning and only as “Aboriginal GLB people.” (p. 6)

The first, explicit claimants of this Complaint of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition–whose mandate nominally includes trans people, but not here–who are gay, lesbian and bisexual are claimants this country has grown accustomed to from the long standing non-inclusive advocacy of Egale Canada. But it is the inclusion of “gender non-conformity” as part of “all things associated” with gays and lesbians and “homosexuality in general” (p. 1) tucked away in the definition of homophobia that is truly significant and possibly novel.

It has allowed the logjam in my own thinking regarding what transgenderism is to break.

Thank you!

This was not my first reaction, however.

I thought this was just the usual imperialism of sexual orientation colonizing trans territory–i.e. transgender identities–while leaving the remaining minority, transsexual people, alone to fend for ourselves. The whole thrust of my advocacy has been to include both transgender and transsexual people, to advocate for both gender expression and gender identity, more or less respectively. Those who have read, listened and truly heard me over the years know this.

My first reaction was anger.

It has always been clear what advocating for transsexual people means; similar clarity with respect to transgender people has previously escaped me. It was an article of faith–as well as practical politics–if not something I could rationally articulate.

A little history.

Discussion at the Trans Issues Committee of Egale Canada in 2004-2005 was marked by a strident refusal by one member to countenance use of the term “gender variant” because, in this member’s belief, “variant” equalled “deviance.” Any space for discussion of gender expression was closed down as a consequence of this stridency. Now, with an undeniably positive turn, and expected wide currency, “gender non-conformity” opens up the discussion again.

Moreover, by their claim to “gender non-conformity” the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition has explicitly, though somewhat secondarily–trans people are always secondary to gay and lesbian people–tied it to sexual orientation: tied sexuality and transgenderism together.

In some ways, this reverses the entire history of the ‘gay rights movement’ which has been one of excluding those perceived to detract from the ability of middle-class, middle-age, white gay and lesbian people from assimilating into society–a policed single-identity movement.

The liberationist wing, somewhat represented by Pink Triangle Press, the Xtra papers and website, has not recently been in ascendance, particularly in the wake of the successes of the assimilationist wing.

This claim has the rather routine effect of leaving transsexual people out in the cold.

There is absolutely no mention of transsexual people in the Complaint as published–and, of course, no mention of transsexual people in Xtra.ca’s rather short piece.

Much routine creativity and energy is being expended on the Egale Canada email list to justify this routine silence. In fact, the spin there is is that this exclusion–not decided by any transsexual people–is really good for trans people–there is yet no comprehension of the inclusion of transgender people.

This is a routine observation on that list.

The Complaint also, interestingly enough, claims two spirit people, declaring quite definitively: “Two-Spirit refers to Aboriginal GLB people.” (p. 6) This counters what I have learned from two spirit teachers who declare their teachings do not concern themselves either with what is between the legs or what is done with it or with whom.

This claim reduces spiritual teachings I have great respect for to mere physicality.

It is true Virginia Prince coined the term “transgender” in the mid-sixties explicitly to counter Harry Benjamin’s articulation, though not invention, of “transsexual.” I would argue–and I believe I’m not alone in doing so–that it wasn’t until the first publication of Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990 that “transgender theory” really took off. For those who understand her, and those who claim they do, Butler provides a strong foundation for both “transgender theory” and “queer theory.”

The notion of performative gender is very useful in arguing there is no necessary or biological basis for gender or sexuality–if not also sex–and provides freedom for those who need it–or need to argue it.

But not all of us seek to leave biology behind.

I believe there was, at that time, a short flirtation with the notion that homosexuals, particularly lesbians, were some sort of third sex. I don’t believe it continues today. On the contrary, in vigorous debate on the Egale Canada email list over the years at least one gay man declared that in sex with men he was never less a man, but hypermasculine. No lesbian was ever so emphatic but it always seemed clear a woman having sex with a woman is no less a woman, either. Neither are some sort of third sex.

Third sex is now a not uncommon repudiation of transsexual men and women.

In my travels across the ‘net I have encountered transsexual women 20 to 30 years post transition/post operation who bring a perspective to current debates often dismissed.

I exchanged comments with one woman who was part of the National Transsexual Counselling Unit out of San Francisco in the late 60’s, early 70’s which was funded in part by Reed Erickson–a transsexual man who was part of early initiatives not only for gay activism, but also for transsexual activism and what is now called New Age.

There is an important essay by Aaron Devor and Nicholas Matte, ONE Inc. and Reed Erickson: The Uneasy Collaboration of Gay and Trans Activism, 1964 – 2003 in Stryker and Whittle’s The Transgender Studies Reader.

Transsexual women such as my correspondent–as well as those who have posted to comments–add further depth, if such is needed, to Namaste’s arguments, particularly in Against Transgender Rights in Sex Change, Social Change. Certainly a polemic title, but a necessary read for those who wish to rationally argue these issues.

The Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition’s human rights Complaint declares the identities–as it claims them–and health needs of sexual orientation and gender non-conformity have been ill-served by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

I would simply make the parallel argument that the identities and health needs of gender identity have not only been ill-served by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, which would, I believe, include transsexual people in the same mandates referred to in the Complaint, but our needs and identities have been ill-served by another organization that has explicitly included us in its mandate but not its advocacy or decision-making.

However, I accept the notion gender non-conformity is an emination, if you will, of sexual orientation, layered on, I would argue, to the sex foundation of identity–layered on to either the cissex or transsex base.

It has always been a commonplace that transsexual people are homosexual (gay, lesbian), bisexual, heterosexual, even asexual in about the same proportions as cissexual people.

Is it any kind of stretch and surely it would be a rational claim that transsexual people are transgender in roughly the same proportions as cissexual people?

This would seem to reverse current arguments of many transgender-identified people that being transsexual is layered on top of being transgender.

I have argued this in Appearances can be deceiving.

I accepted Butler’s argument in her essay on David Reimer that sexual orientation and transgenderism are socially constructed but argued, against Butler, that Reimer’s tragic life demonstrates the persistence of gender identity, including gender identities counter to what is assigned at birth and that, unlike orientation and transgenderism, is not the result of, and is unchanged by, whatever behaviour modification nature or science forces upon us.

I am grateful to the authors of this Complaint for opening another path to this clarity.

A true coalition cannot be formed without a number of conditions being satisfied, among them the laying out with clarity the needs, struggles and embodied lives of the constituents of such a coalition–the precise opposite of policed single-identity movements such as those lead by, historically, Egale Canada and now the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition.

Yet my gratitude knows no bounds for this “coalition” for it has laid out the grounds for their part of the coalition–not in quotes–which includes not only gay, lesbian and bisexual people but also two spirit and transgender people.

The challenge now comes to those whose primary identification is transgender–those whom I would have thought transsexual–who do not also primarily identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the terms of this Complaint to clarify their position, to name themselves as transsexual people have long done, as gay and lesbian people have long done, as two spirit people are doing.

Also as these “six Canadian queers” have now done not only for themselves but also for bisexual people, for transgender people and for two spirit people–whether they will or no.

The choice for those whose primary identification is transgender who do not also primarily identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the terms of this Complaint is either to allow themselves to be claimed by this Complaint and sexual orientation or to name themselves with clarity in preparation to join the coalition.

I encourage them to approach this challenge with the same joy I have.


Butler, J. (2006). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Namaste, V. (2005). Sex change, social change:Reflections on identity, institutions, and imperialism. Toronto: Women’s Press.

Stryker, S. and Whittle, S. (eds.) (2006). The transgender studies reader. New York: Routledge.

UPDATE: Yes, in reply to comments, Prince coined the term “transgenderist.” I have been reading a number of Journal articles and other publications from as recently as the mid/late 90’s and this is the term. In Access Denied, Namaste’s contribution to CLGRO’s System Failure, this is the usage.

I think by the time the Ontario Human Rights Commission Discussion Paper Toward a Commission Policy on Gender Identity, 1999, this had begun/had already disappeared.

It has such a weird sound.

UPDATE II: (March 8, 2009) In the first paragraph of this commentary, I refer to Gens Hellquist, Executive Director of the Canadian Human Rights Coalition who is one of the “six Canadian queers” who have filed this Human Rights Complaint.

In the third paragraph, I refer to the Complaint as the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition’s Human Rights Complaint.

I was wrong.

This is just a Complaint by “six Canadian queers”, one of whom just happens to be the Executive Director of the Coalition. I am curious to know what the relationship of the other five is to the Coalition–or what resources, what knowledge or experience gained through the use of Coalition resources was used in researching, preparing and filing this Complaint.

I am thinking that this was the way for these “six Canadian queers” to get around the mandate of the Coalition which includes “a gender identity that doesn’t conform to the identity assigned at birth.”

This is what some say is the reason Egale Canada created Canadians for Equal Marriage, to avoid its constitutional commitment to intersectionality (see section 2.1; which also requires Egale Canada to be located in Ottawa, not Toronto) and its mandate to include “trans-identified people.”

This now seems to be a venerable tactic of gay, lesbian and bisexual people to get around any notion of or commitment to a GLBT community.

Once, Capital Xtra called for discussions whenever gay and lesbian people and their organizations take part in any part of trans issues. The addition of “trans-identified people”, in the case of Egale Canada, and “gender identity,” in the case of the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition, to their respective mandates, would have constituted such a discussion.

How many times must we have these discussions?

What is the point even to attempting to have these discussions if they can be side-stepped with such nonchalence–and no one but me to call them on it?

One Response to What’s in a Name?

  1. Amber Thompson says:

    Virginia Price coined the term “Transgenderist” not transgender, transgender is a much more contemporary word,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: