Trans Tribulations: Acceptance Elusive for Transgendered Community

Monday Magazine | February 6, 2008
Upon reading a recent Monday Magazine article about women’s self-defence courses, 51-year-old Danna Waldman decided she could benefit from the “self protection strategies” taught at Langford’s Personal Protection Systems.

Standing five-foot-five and weighing 160 pounds, Waldman says she feels at risk of physical and sexual violence and wants the necessary tools to fend off potential attackers.

“I guess the thing that struck me most was the whole presentation of their business—of empowering women to fight back for themselves and stay safe,” says Waldman, reflecting on her first impression of PPS.

So she phoned PPS proprietor Beth Laur to enquire about the next available opening in one of the women-only classes. Waldman says it soon became clear she would not be welcome in any of the programs currently advertised by the business. The hitch? Danna Waldman is a male-to-female transgendered woman working through the bureaucratic maze toward government-funded gender reassignment surgery.

“I thought to myself, ‘Fine, you have the right to run your business as you see fit,’” Waldman says of PPS. “However, to take advantage of a large amount of publicity and present yourself as a business that strives to help people in danger or in need, you are not serving my needs—and I’m not the only one who has needs like this in Victoria.”

The decision to exclude Waldman from the PPS class was a simple one for Laur.

“As I explained completely to [Waldman], it had nothing to do with her as a person or who she was,” says Laur. “It was simply that we cannot mix the sexes in our classes. We have many women that come to us who are survivors of rape and sexual assault who don’t disclose that information to us, and they would be very uncomfortable having men in the class.”

Laur told Monday that once Waldman’s gender reassignment surgery is complete she would be welcome to participate in any of the women-only classes. Waldman was also told if she could organize 10 other transgendered individuals, PPS would willingly host an exclusive class for the group in the meantime.

Laur’s response doesn’t satisfy Waldman, who today sees the presence of a penis as an inconvenient byproduct of her birth, and identifies wholly as a female.

Her recent trouble enrolling in Personal Protection Systems is not the first time Waldman’s identity has clashed with social norms. The University of Victoria graduate, bike mechanic and former theatre performer says she has settled a lawsuit out of court with a former landlord who evicted her after she “came out” while living in the building. She also recounts trouble with UVic security who accosted her when she attempted to use the women’s change room at the university swimming pool, despite presenting letters from physicians validating her identity. She also claims to have been denied employment on the basis of her gender.

“They rely on the age-old ‘If it was my choice, I would hire you, but you have to understand that our clientele might not feel comfortable,’” says Waldman. “The terminology goes back 300 years. They may as well have hung a sign that said ‘No Irish Need Apply.’”

Today Waldman carries an envelope containing three reference letters—one from her therapist, one from her psychiatrist and one from her endocrinologist—in case she must defend her gender.

Waldman attributes some of the day-to-day problems she encounters to the failure by most Canadian provinces to enshrine the protection of gender in their human rights codes. The only region in the country to buck the trend is the Northwest Territories, where its human rights act states it is against the law to discriminate against any individual or group on the basis of “sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” Canada’s rights codes have long protected individuals—in word if not in deed—from discrimination on the basis of genetic sex, but have shied away from the more subtle and fluid consideration of gender identity.

Sociologist Aaron Devor, UVic’s dean of graduate studies, has built a successful academic career on the study of gender, sex, transgendered females and female-to-male transsexuals. Devor says what Waldman characterizes as discrimination is perhaps better understood as a natural reaction from a society that has long used the dichotomization of sex and gender as simple guideposts for understanding a complex world.

“I find it useful to think of gender change as analogous to immigration,” says Devor. “When people change countries and cultures they are not immediately granted full rights and responsibilities. In Canada, as in other countries, we require an application for immigration and a period of qualification (landed immigrant status) prior to full citizenship. After citizenship most people take some time to fully integrate into their new culture. Some never lose the ways of the old country.

“By analogy, I’d say that people who are in transition, or who choose to live between genders, should have intermediate rights. Those who have made full transition should have full rights and responsibilities, regardless of how well they have acculturated.”

But Devor says a time may yet come when public policy is able to keep pace with changing notions of gender.

“I do believe that in the next decade or so we will see similar advances as we have seen in the last couple of decades concerning women’s rights and gay rights—both of which are ultimately about weakening the connections between genetic sex and gender expression.”

In 1973 homosexuality was finally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders when the medical profession could no longer rationalize sexual preference as a choice. “Gender Identity Disorders,” however, continue to occupy a chapter in the psychiatric bible. This leaves those in the transgendered community at the mercy of the medical and policy-making establishment to define who, and what they are when they come into contact with public institutions, or—in the case of Personal Protection Systems—private enterprise, despite being confident in their own identities.

“I take great exception to the term ‘living as a woman’ and the lie of our arbitrarily choosing this ‘lifestyle,’” says Danna Waldman. “My choice of living as me is driven by the necessities of biology, not because I woke up one morning and decided to reclaim my gender for fun.” M

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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