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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2011

Orientation, Gender Identity Deserve Protection

By Penni Stewart
A private member’s bill current­ly going through the Cana­dian parliament is poised to make a landmark statement on equality. First introduced in May 2010 by New Democratic MP Bill Siksay, Bill C-389 extends federal human rights protection against discrimination to members of the transgender and transsexual community and amends the Criminal Code to recognize offenses as hate crimes when motivated by a victim’s gender identity or gender expression. Debate and third reading of the bill is expected in February or March but if a spring election is called, it will likely die on the order paper.

This bill is overdue in recognizing discrimination and violence faced by trans people whose gender identity challenges dominant society to see beyond a narrowly defined two-sex/two-gender world. Surveys of transsexual and transgender individuals in Canada and the United States have consistently found significant numbers of respondents reporting harassment, intimidation and assault as well as discrimination in housing and employment.

A recent survey of Canadian high school students by Egale Canada found 75 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students and 87 per cent of transgender students feel unsafe in at least one place at school. Nine out of 10 transgender students reported being verbally harassed and almost two in five had also been physically harassed.

In many of these incidents within schools, students reported staff did not intervene. Not surprisingly, the effects of harassment are very harmful. Students report skipping school, fear, depression, isolation and alienation. Homophobic bullying has been blamed for a number of student suicides in recent months in Canada and the U.S.

The Campus Pride 2010 National College Climate Survey echoes the findings of the Egale survey, describing U.S. post-secondary environments as frequently unsupportive of — if not outright hostile to — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students, academic staff and other employees. This is especially true for transgender individuals and those with intersecting marginalized identities. Recently, St. Thomas University in Fredericton drew protests following revelations that a transgender student was assaulted when trying to access a women’s washroom.

Our unions and associations should publicly support Bill C-389. The federal-based legislation is important not only because it expands legal redress to discrimination and protection for rights, but also because it shines a light on issues that have rarely been the subject of public debate and discussion. Bill C-389 sends a message that harassment and discrimination based on gender identity and expression are important social issues we need to confront.

But legislation alone is not sufficient redress to hostility, misinformation, transphobia and homophobia. Whether or not Bill C-389 is passed, academic staff must address discrimination and injustice to LGBTQ students, staff or members of our unions. Academic staff associations have a moral and legal obligation to foster and protect the rights of all members.

Our collective agreements are the front line for defense and we should begin there. Some university and college-level collective agreements already include language addressing sexual identity and same sex partnerships. That language should be reviewed and, where necessary, extended to include gender identity and expression. Adding gender identity and gender expression to non-discrimination clauses would be a first step. Some progressive agreements with a gender identity dimension, such as that of Queen’s University Faculty Association, define “equity seeking groups” as the four designated groups — women, visible minorities, abori­ginal people and persons with disabilities — plus persons of non-heterosexual orientation or gender identity.

Benefits are also an issue. Academic staff undergoing transition may need assistance with access to medical procedures and time off for treatment. Some unions have negotiated transsexual transition leave and trans funds or extended benefits coverage.

Using inclusive language also makes room for the diversity of individuals. Documents and official forms should allow for more than the usual male/female designations and administrative procedures that officially recognize changes in gen­der identity must be accessible. Part of defending our members rights lies in ensuring that our employer lives up to the obligation to provide a harassment free workplace. Incidents of discrimination and bias must be promptly and properly addressed. In part this is an issue of education. At some institutions, including mine, positive space training has made the environment more welcoming for all.

Beyond our collective agreements, we need to promote awareness about climates and the experience of LGBTQ academic staff and students. I recently attended a workshop sponsored jointly by York University Faculty Association’s queer caucus and community projects committee to promote awareness on the educational system as a site of struggle for LGBTQ people. Secondary and post-secondary students and educators from the Toronto area described institutional barriers to access and participation and the ways in which curriculum and policy could address non-discrimination measures.

Having the faculty association leadership at this workshop made an important statement about our union’s commitment to promoting the rights of members and the pursuit of inclusion.