Halifax MP Megan Leslie's Speech in Support of Trans Rights Bill

Editor's Note: Megan Leslie spoke in support of Bill C-279 after Charlottetown MP, Sean Casey. Bill C-279 is a Private Members Bill to amend the Canada Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include protections for transgender Canadians, known to supporters as the "Gender Identity Bill" and sometimes derided by its detractors as the "Bathroom Bill." The speech was delivered during the debate on C-279 on the evening of March 7. The Bill goes before the House of Commons for its third and most crucial vote on March 20, 2013. You can aslo watch Ms. Leslie's speech on YouTube.

Leslie in 2011"Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for Charlottetown for his speech. That was really incredible.

I am a trans rights activist. I have been working on the issue of transgender rights for many years in my community of Halifax, and I am an ally to the trans community. Years ago, when I was a law student, and then later when I was working at Dalhousie Legal Aid, I worked with NSRAP, the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, and we developed a trans rights awareness program.

I had the opportunity to work with transgendered Nova Scotians to develop a presentation on trans rights. We actually presented to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission on the realities of being trans people, their experiences, day after day, within their communities, our communities, within their/our legal institutions and within their/our government institutions, because we do not realize, when we are cisgender, which is when our gender identity matches our biological sex, how often we get to take for granted our gender rights.

I had a transgender client who once asked me to write a letter on official legal aid letterhead that gave a legal opinion about her right to use the bathroom, based on case law. She would keep it in her purse and use it if she ran into problems. Imagine walking around with a legal document, a legal opinion, in one’s purse or wallet to settle disputes about the right to use a bathroom. Imagine the indignity of arguing this with mall security, with a bouncer, with classmates or co-workers, just to heed the call of nature. It could be at any time. It could be this afternoon. It could be tomorrow. It could be every day. It could be never. One just does not know when it is going to happen.

Imagine being pulled over by the police for speeding and answering questions about why the sex listed on one’s identification does not match one’s gender identity. Perhaps one’s birth name is called out at the doctor’s office, because one has to have sex reassignment surgery to change identification. Imagine what that would feel like. These small indignities happen every day to members of our community.

The bill does a small thing by adding trans rights to the Canadian Human Rights Act and by adding trans motivated hate to the hate crimes list. It is a small thing, but it is a magnificent thing.

I am pretty close to the trans advocate community at home, and we have had long discussions about the idea that adding trans rights to human rights legislation may not actually grant protections that members of the trans community do not already have. As we heard, there is ample case law to show that human rights commissions will fit trans rights into different categories that already exist. For example, when Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project made our presentation to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, it was strong and steadfast in its commitment to protecting trans rights and said that it would find a way to make it fit under another ground, but what ground? How do we protect the dignity of trans Canadians when we are asking them to fit their problem into the margins? How do we protect the dignity of trans people by making them look for their rights under another category, such as sex, when it is not about sex, or gender, when it is not about gender, or disability, when it is absolutely not a disability?

It is meaningful to look at rights and see ourselves there. It is important to know that we are protected, that we can hold up a human rights act and say, “I am protected. I am here in this document”.

Further to this argument, we heard evidence from the Canadian Human Rights Commission that fitting trans people into the margins now is not a guarantee that they will be fit into the margins in the future. Enshrining rights in legislation protects those rights, and trans Canadians need this protection.

The Canadian Police Association agrees. Today, president Tom Stamatakis spoke out in favour of this bill with a simple and beautiful statement that equality under the law is an important principle for Canada’s front-line police personnel to uphold. It is that simple.

My home province of Nova Scotia has had this debate in our legislature. I want to share a letter from Kate Shewan about how things have changed since this legislation was passed in our province.

I think we can learn from the Nova Scotia example, and I think we can learn from the members of our trans community who have had this experience. She writes:I’m a board member of Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, an organization that advocates for the rights of the LGBT community. I’m also a trans-identified person. I’m writing to you in support of Bill C-279. As a member of the trans community in Nova Scotia, where provincially we’ve benefited from the changes to the human rights act, I’ve seen first hand how this change can benefit individuals within the trans community, a community which has suffered significant discrimination. The immediate change that I saw following the Nova Scotia legislation was a change in attitudes and a new confidence. Members of the trans community who had almost taken it for granted that they would be discriminated against in the employment market and other areas of society felt empowered and more confident, knowing with certainty that their rights were protected, and seeing that the challenges our community faces had been formally acknowledged. In a group that suffers significant unemployment, underemployment and disengagement from society in general, I believe this empowerment and confidence will help to give trans Canadians a better opportunity to reach their full potential, improve their employment and economic situations and become more engaged in the community. It is important that these protections are also in place at the federal level, so that all trans Canadians can benefit from these changes.

Today is International Women’s Day, and I heard a lot of statements in the House about how far women have come in our fight for equality. I heard a number of references today to the Persons Case, a court case that ruled that we, women, were persons under the law. The result of that case probably did not do much for women that week. It probably did not change their day-to-day experience. It did not mean that the next day all of a sudden women got to sit at the tables of decision making. It did not mean that the next day they started working outside the home and were paid wages equal to men’s, and it did not mean that domestic violence ended. However, not long after that, some women got the right to vote. A woman could look at that document and know that in the eyes of the law, she counted.

In the lead-up to today, I got a lot of calls and emails from my community telling me why they thought I should support this bill. Of course everybody knew that I would, but they sent me such interesting things that I wanted to share a couple of them. I had one community member who contacted me to say:

I’m trans, but have a good job, house, car, money in the bank…by all measure successful in most people’s eyes. (Not to boast) just trying to show that we are like most other people, just are part of a gender spectrum that is finally being recognized.

I also want to share a letter I received from the sexual orientation and gender identity division of the Canadian Bar Association. I was a member of that group when I was a law student. This is from the chair of the equality committee and the co-chairs of the sexual orientation and gender identity community. Here is just a shout-out to Amy Sakalauskas and Level Chan who are actually from Nova Scotia. I was happy that they have taken up this issue. They wrote:

Transgender Canadians are a minority who suffer profound discrimination, such as job losses, alienation from their communities, ridicule, harassment and inadequate health care services. They also disproportionately fall victim to hate crimes, including homicide.

They go on. It is these kinds of examples that make us realize we have to do something about this.The bathroom panic argument just does not wash. We have laws against peeping Toms. It is an illegal act. That argument does not wash here. An argument that does wash here is that recently I was at a community event and a young person came up to me. I do not really remember it. I do not remember if this person was a young man or a young woman, blond or brunette, but this person came up to me, took my hand and opened it, put something in my hand and closed it up. Then they left. I opened my hand and there was a tiny little note. It said:

Thanks for giving ... (an eff) ... about trans people.

I think that is why we are here."

- Megan Leslie, M. P. (NDP), Halifax NS

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