Jan. 02, 2013 - Issue #898: Apocalypse Not?
Canadian Human Rights
The 'privileged' often experience them the most
I was invited to speak on the panel "Queer Inclusion: Sexual Orientation Rights," for the John Humphrey Centre's The Gall Conference: The State of Human Rights in Alberta. My co-panelists were Ed Lavallee, Kristopher Wells, Michael Phair and Danielle Peers. Suffice it to say, I was both intimidated and excited to be participating in the panel.
We were asked to discuss the most pressing human rights issues for LGBTQ Albertans. We also addressed a wide variety of issues, including the need to build solidarities between two-spirit and LGBTQ communities, the continued prevalence of bullying against LGBTQ students in the province, homophobia and transphobia in sports, the benefits and problems of using "coming out" as a political tool, current political and activist strategies for Alberta's LGBTQ communities and the usefulness and effectiveness of the human rights model for attaining social justice.
On the latter point, Peers presented several problems with our current human rights model, and the dominance of rights as a social justice strategy in LGBTQ politics. Peers argued that it is actually very difficult for citizens to exercise their rights because rights are vaguely written and too complicated for most people to understand. Moreover, when rights are violated, it is difficult to prove that the violation occurred. As Peers explained: "People don't normally, explicitly tell you that they fired you because you're gay or because you're disabled." Rights are reactive and costly. Substantial funds are required to pursue legal recourse to attain justice after your rights have been compromised.
According to Peers, pursuing human rights as a social justice strategy can do more harm than good to the most vulnerable in our communities. She added that human rights "tend to focus on the identity of the rights bearer ... instead of shared systems of oppressions. It divides instead of unites us in our social struggles. Those who experience the most violence and vulnerability often identify with more than one oppressed group, but rights do a really bad job of dealing with those kinds of intersections. Thus rights tend to be most useful for queers with the most privilege."
Peers highlighted many important criticisms of our human rights model, and I'd like to add two more: first, human rights are only dolled out on the terms of those in power; second, there is a substantial amount of compromise needed to add a group to the Human Rights Act, often resulting in the watering down of the terms and conditions. These problems, along with those Peers mentioned, are present in the latest battle to add gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Randall Garrison, an NDP MP, tabled a bill this year to change the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. Parliament has rejected many iterations of this bill over the past few years and, despite the Conservative majority, the bill seemed to be gaining traction. The bill has now come to a near halt, however, as Conservative MPs are intentionally prolonging debate, and most egregiously, they have argued that allocating rights and protections to trans people will somehow give men license to enter women's washrooms and assault women and children. This "bathroom argument" is nothing more than tired and disgusting fear mongering. Trans Canadians are subject to disproportionate levels of daily violence, discrimination, incarceration and poverty, and yet the Conservative government is exercising their political agenda at the expense of citizens' human rights needs.
In an effort to gain Conservative votes, it has been suggested that gender expression be removed from the legislation. Apparently, gender expression is a term that is too complicated, difficult and politically volatile for the Conservative government. But there are important differences between gender identity and expression—the former is more of a legal designation, while the latter refers to how one actually presents themselves. Many trans people prefer not to change their legal identity, but wish to still express their gender as they choose. Removing gender expression substantially weakens the bill and fails to protect those who truly need support.
The attainment of the rights is an important goal to some members of Canada's trans communities, but trans people and communities deserve—and need—far better than watered down and ineffective political appeasement. V
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