“It’s Pretty Dire”: Canada's Problem with Transphobia

“Every breath we take is a win and a big f**k you.”

Cassandra Kislenko



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These days, it’s a little harder to get out of bed. 

It’s always been hard to live as a trans person, don’t get me wrong. But something about the US passing laws criminalizing the way I dress every morning, and proposing legislation which would encourage people to sue drag performers (who are often conflated with trans persons), has a certain je ne c’est quoi of truly paralyzing fear. And it’s awkward to watch all the supposed allies react with a disapproving head shake before moving on with their day, as if both my life and theirs aren’t in impending moral danger. 

I am reminded of German Theologian Martin Niemoller’s famous quote about the inaction of well-intentioned but ineffective Germans in the lead-up to the holocaust:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This quote fails to mention that queer and trans people were among the Nazis’ first targets–in 1934, Nazi Youth attacked the Berlin Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or Institute for Sexuality, which pioneered the first scientific research into gender identity and sexual orientation. They ransacked the institute, destroying years of groundbreaking research and lynching its doctors and patients. This included the likely murder of Dora "Dörchen" Richter, recipient of the world’s first sexual reassignment surgery. 

Today, allies of all stripes are wild about Niemoller’s quote. In my experience, it makes them feel like they could never make the same mistake–-and that mindset is why they don’t seem to realize that Canada is currently living it. 

Groups like the Christian nationalist Action4Canada have been trying to bully any inclusive messaging out of school curriculums, to the point that the group was banned from attending board meetings in Mission, BC. A spanning organization with chapters across the country, Action4Canada has been growing rapidly, with documents revealing they amassed nearly $800k of donations in 2022 alone.

School boards have been a battleground for transphobic adults since last October’s municipal elections, where a slate of “anti-woke” candidates from groups like Blueprint for Canada ran on platforms pushing transphobia and white supremacy. 

Meanwhile, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has been a hub for frothing transphobia, with some of those opposed to inclusive educational policies sending antisemitic death threats to one trustee over transgender students using the bathroom. The Waterloo Region District School Board’s education director has experienced racist and transphobic threats

  

Northern Exposure 

 

Canadian far-right groups are attempting to replicate American movements, who have succeeded in passing anti-trans legislation. In the past few months, states like Oklahoma and Tennessee have passed laws outlawing gender affirming care for children

In other states, groups like the Proud Boys and others rally outside family friendly drag shows. In Canada, it is a collection of individuals, groups, and networks outside of school and library events. Besides Action4Canada, Canada’s iteration of White Lives Matter, Active Club, and more have shown up in person to protest along side individuals who have been involved with this country’s hate scene for years or even decades.

While much of the grass roots support and organizing takes place on social media, mainstream outlets like Fox News have only further driven the spread of egregious misinformation about trans people and issues.

Far from being influenced by US politics, experts say Canada has always played an active role in fostering transphobia. 

“It’s pretty dire,” says transfeminine jurist and bioethicist Florence Ashley. “Things are getting worse, but it's also important to note that things were never really good.”

 


Source: Florenceashley.com

 

“Anti drag protests and fascist movements in Canada are … chickens coming home to roost.”

Ashley says that Canada acts as a “two way street,” exchanging fascist influence with the US, pointing to far-right figures like Jordan Peterson – who got his start drumming up panic about Bill C-16. But the biggest culprit by far is actually Toronto’s Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH), the country’s largest and most well-funded mental hospital. 

Ashley singles out child psychiatrist Susan Bradley, who founded the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic in the 1970s at what would become CAMH. Bradley – currently a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto – has given multiple interviews opposing adolescents accessing gender-affirming care, recanting her previous support. 

Meanwhile, her contemporary Kenneth Zucker, with whom she published a book on the subject, has given a platform to medical transphobia through the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, of which he has been editor in chief since 2001. During his career, Zucker “treated” over 500 trans youth into conforming to their medically assigned sex. 

CAMH has historically been one of the biggest international exporters of transphobia in the trans healthcare world,” says Ashley. “There’s a lot of institutional support behind (the far right’s) hatred.” 

Canada’s role in fostering transphobia at what Ashley calls “institutionally legitimate levels” helped form the foundation of misinformation that these current movements are building on.

“Americans look to what's being done in Canada and see it as justification for what they're doing,” they say. 

  

Stepping Forward

  

If we accept that Canada’s anti-trans movements are a sign of more danger to come, what exactly are we supposed to do?  As a transgender woman, I would love to see cis people jump into action and start organizing out of pure solidarity. 

But in the absence of that type of organizing, Ashley says allies should at least act out of self-preservation. While the attacks may be ostensibly about drag, they are part of a larger fight over who belongs in society, and ultimately who is considered worthy of humanity. That’s why the “anti-woke” movement trades in white supremacy and eugenics in addition to transphobia. 

“They've already picked their targets, they're just going through the list one by one,” says Ashley. 

That’s why Ashley says there is a need for solidarity from allies now, because “the moment you let fascism take root, it’s too late.” 

Most importantly, solidarity from allies allows trans people to do the thing they need the most: rest. 

“First and foremost, take care of yourself,” Ashley advises trans people. “Take stock of what skills you have and what you're good at, because that's where you can help the most.” 

They stress that political movements don’t just need activists; whether you can track finances, code a website, or write an article, then your skills are not just valuable but an act of rebellion.

“Their goal is to make us disappear from…society,” says Ashley. “Every breath we take is a win and a big fuck you.”

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