by James Gardner
Coming out as lesbian in a small, Canadian prairie town in my “early years” seemed like a struggle at the time, but in hindsight, it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be. Even so, I realized early on that because of my sexual non-conformity, I would need to be more deliberate about where I chose to live—and specifically, I needed to be mindful of looking for work and housing in a place with more liberal views and values.
As a native of Canada, I first chose Vancouver, with its large and vibrant LGBTQ community, plus its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, multiculturalism and cosmopolitan vibe. Vancouver is the eighth most populous city in Canada—with just over 603,000 people, according to the 2011 census. A city with a large population, known for its diversity, struck me as a good first try.
During my 22 years there, I had not yet considered transitioning from female to male, and was settled comfortably in my same-sex marriage. However, there was a constant voice telling me there was something else going on and it wasn’t just my sexual non-conformity as a self-identified lesbian.
Almost a decade after leaving Vancouver, I decided to take a job in radio in Victoria. It was then that it struck me that I was transgender, and needed to proceed with my journey on that path accordingly. Of course, prior to moving to Victoria, I wasn’t so much concerned with services and resources available for transgender folks in a given city as I was for gay folks. Now that I was in Victoria, I had to start weighing the aspects of the city that made it trans-inclusive, and those that needed some work.
Victoria is a city that holds liberal values close to its core. While it is much smaller than Vancouver (with a population of only 78,000), it serves as the capital city of the province of British Columbia, and still boasts all that is magnificent in a seaside city; great seafood, sailing and even world-class surfing on the west side of Vancouver Island.
When you walk downtown you’ll see brightly colored crosswalks outside city hall painted in the Pride colors. Our Mayor is an “out” lesbian, and each year our Pride celebrations get larger with both queer and straight folk participating. However, much like any other Canadian or American city, there is still more that local educators, health professionals and others can do to protect LGBTQ folks from discrimination and violence.
I was surprised to learn that Victoria has only just passed a resolution to develop a transgender inclusion policy. It’s expected the amendment will provide protection against discrimination in areas like housing, employment and in cases where we encounter intolerance or violence in our communities.
Several months ago, a trans woman attended a local swimming pool and was told by city staff she could not change in the men’s or the women’s change room. Since they didn’t know what to do with her, they forced her to change her clothes in a cramped first-aid room. She spoke to the local media, and many of us in the trans community were horrified she had been treated this way.
As a trans advocate and member of the media, I was consulted and asked to speak with the local television station that had also interviewed the woman about her poor treatment by city staff. I stated that trans people are everywhere, and we need to be treated like human beings. I also strongly suggested that city staff receive sensitivity training so this kind of incident doesn’t happen again. Both of my points seemed pretty basic, and yet neither seem to be automatic or regular part of public life here yet.
Most of Victoria’s recreational facilities already offer gender-neutral bathrooms and change rooms, but this particular building that housed the pool had not yet been refitted. The City of Victoria issued an apology to the woman and said it would ensure all staff at the pool be given sensitivity training. While a city spokesperson said he hoped she would revisit the facility, the woman said she would not go back.
In order to plan services for LGBTQ residents, cities need to have some idea of who will be using those facilities. These ideas usually come from focus groups, surveys and polls. However, the LGBTQ population is rarely counted. We are often ignored in the provision of such important services as education, housing and health care.
While pollsters are getting a better handle on the number of LGBQ people living in North America, to date, there have not yet been reputable and/or comprehensive counts on transgender populations. And even if there was an accurate way to count the number of trans folks in any given community, many of us may not want to be counted because of being exposed and the threat of discrimination or violence.
One of the most cited estimates of the transgender population is from demographer, Gary Gates from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute. The paper was published in 2011, and while it originally estimated that 0.3% of the population, or 700,000 adults, identified as transgender, it’s now broadened that scope by declaring, “Approximately 0.6% of adults in the United States, or 1.4 million individuals, identify as transgender.”
If you are gender non-conforming you know that gender is usually limited to simply male and female. This also limits participation and leaves many of us out of any population estimates. Also, it’s not enough to simply indicate male, female, trans male and trans female. Many of us identify in other ways including queer, gender fluid, intersex and so on.
So what are some things you can begin to do in order to make your city or town more trans-inclusive? You can start small.
1. Stand up, and be Counted.
There is no better advocate than you, but for various reasons sometimes we don’t have enough fight in us, or it may be too dangerous to out ourselves. Whether it’s a population census, getting your gender marker changed, or receiving protection at your job, we need to stand up for what’s right.
We are all worthy of dignity and respect, and with that, it’s good to be prepared for what could go wrong. In this case, a self-advocacy plan may be helpful. Here are some relevant questions to consider:
2. Before setting out, ask yourself, “What is my mission or goal?”
What is it that you want to achieve, and how will you know when you achieve it? Maybe it is access to gender-neutral change rooms, or a simple name change at your bank. For many of us this can be daunting, so it helps to plan ahead.
3. Consider the barriers you may face.
These may be real or imagined, but fear of judgment and aggression are barriers to getting what we need. Write down or role play how you might handle such a scenario. What if your request is denied? Is there some other action you can take, or someone else you can speak to?
4. Be creative, and ask, “Who or what can I take with me to help reach my goal?”
Even if it is just a trip to see your doctor, take a friend or family member with you for support. You may need someone to take notes, or just give you a hug when things get rough. Make sure you have all your documents and papers with you that you might need to present to an agency or organization. Be prepared.
5. Prepare for the worst—the possibility of your plan not working.
If your plan works, great, if it doesn’t, don’t give up. I have found that the more you push something, the more likely you are to get what you need. Be clear about what you are looking for and find out if there is something further you can do to get the required results. Are you prepared to modify your goal if needed?
I discovered early in my advocacy work that you need to choose your battles. You may not be able to make an impact in one area and it may be better to serve in areas where you can.
6. Be very, very patient.
As they say, “Rome was not built in a day.” As trans people we are making progress, but nothing happens overnight. We still have a long way to go to be recognized as global citizens and to be welcomed for our talents. Part of keeping on track with claiming our rights and being our own advocates is recognizing the reality of various situations, and navigating our reactions to conserve energy and focus.
There are a few options for protecting your rights besides self-advocacy.
- Ask a friend or family member to advocate on your behalf.
- Find an organization with volunteer or professional advocates to advocate for you
- Contact your local city councilor or elected official who is responsible for your issue to advocate for you.
- Support or create a group that works to create the change you are looking for.
These may be baby steps, but once you see some degree of change as the result of your actions, you will feel empowered, and that’s the first step. From there, taking action only gets easier and more efficient—and your results tend to follow suit.
So share your knowledge with others so that they don’t try to duplicate what you have already accomplished. By stepping out of your comfort zone, you will not only be building your own confidence, but also helping others to establish theirs.
READERS: what positive and negative experiences have you had in your place of residence? Please share your stories by submitting to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James is a newscaster in British Columbia who made a very public transition while working at a radio station in Victoria. He simply signed on one day as James. When listeners asked what happened to Sheila they were told that Sheila is now James. James says the support he received was overwhelmingly positive. You can learn more about James at the transgenderproject.com.