Trans rights flag at Toronto City Hall. (Image: Kristyn Wong-Tam/Flickr)

Trans rights in Canada are, legally speaking, not up for debate. 

As Charlotte Dalwood explained for the CBC on Oct. 14, trans people are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as through various rulings that have set human rights precedents

As Dalwood notes, these protections are now under attack by “anti-transgender rights advocates” who argue that guaranteeing trans people rights “discriminates against and harms cisgender women.” Dalwood’s article is prescient, as it came out only days before we saw those exact arguments being made in Canadian media. 

It started with Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno writing a piece published in the Oct. 16 print edition, in which she claimed gender-neutral language in healthcare erased women. It’s not a particularly new or interesting take, and one that’s been thoroughly critiqued over the years, but the Star gave the piece a full page (A3) in the news section — despite it being opinion. The online article also received a traffic boost due to being (controversially) tweeted by author Margaret Atwood on Oct. 19.

A few days later, Atwood shared another article — this time from the CBC, decrying “toxic, in-your-face activism.” The opinion piece was written by a trans woman, Jessica Triff, but was filled with transphobic talking points. Triff implied that trans people who do not transition medically are “risks to women’s safety,” and that the label “trans woman” should only be used to refer to someone who has “gone through therapy, hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgeries.” 

Finally, there was also a CTV “investigation” into trans children and youth who are seeking gender affirming medical treatment. That story relied heavily on the stories of Keira Bell and Sinead Watson — two cis women in the U.K. who identified as trans men, before re-transitioning back to live as women — in order to argue that trans affirming youth healthcare in Canada is too easy to access. (Mel Woods has written an excellent article in Xtra that covers these stories and their issues in more detail.)

Although these stories would seem to be different, they all serve the purpose of questioning trans people’s rights: the right to be referred to with accurate language, the right to be allowed into correctly gendered spaces, the right to make their own medical decisions. They are also conversations we’ve had before in Canada. They happened in 2017, when Bill C-16 was being debated, and in 2019, when anti-trans agitator Meghan Murphy spoke at the Toronto Public Library and received laudatory coverage.

This sudden resurgence in feminist-cloaked anti-trans media rhetoric is probably due to that strategy’s success in my home country, the U.K.

While in the U.S., transphobia typically comes from right wing religious conservatism, in the U.K. it is more often wielded by people who call themselves “feminists.” Despite the fact that trans women and cis women are on the same page in almost every battle, British media goes out of its way to present them as incompatible. This is almost always through arguing that giving trans women rights will somehow hurt cisgender women. (Trans men, when discussed, are infantilized and treated as confused “girls” with internalized misogyny. Non-binary people are almost never mentioned.) 

One recent example of this was an Oct. 26 article published by the BBC, about the supposed phenomenon of lesbians being pressured into having sex with trans women. 

The article was widely panned as poorly researched, badly edited, and incredibly transphobic. The “evidence” used to support these claims was a single 80-person survey, run by a known anti-trans campaign group, Get The L Out, alongside a few personal anecdotes, which were then used to demonize an entire community. One of the people interviewed for the article was a lesbian porn star who spoke about turning down doing a scene with a trans woman — and who has herself been accused of raping multiple women. The narrative behind the article is an obvious rehash of homophobic attitudes levelled against queer people in the 20th century to argue for their exclusion from some public spaces.

The BBC believes it can get away with writing such poorly researched nonsense, and defending the article as having gone through a “rigorous editorial process” because the entire mainstream media culture of the U.K. writes similarly awful stuff. Feminist-coded transphobia really took off in the U.K. in 2017, when the government held an open consultation about changes to the outdated 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Columnists started claiming reform would lead to dangerous trans women (or cisgender men pretending to be transgender women) abusing cis women in toilets and changing rooms. But instead of this trope dying out, it became a normalized media narrative. These myths, and others like them, have only become more frequent in the past few years

Media-wide transphobia causes a lot of problems. It negatively affects trans people’s mental health. It can have a material impact on healthcare services. It can also sway public perception and be used to manufacture social consent. In the U.K., that looks like a segregated trans healthcare system that’s being deliberately destroyed by a Conservative government; a lack of reform on outdated gender identity policy; and single-issue hate groups like the LGB Alliance gaining charitable status and holding huge, well-publicized conferences

The constant attacks on trans rights also affect how trans people are allowed to exist in the media. Trans journalists and writers are forced to defend their rights time and time again —  so we lose the chance to have important, powerful stories in favour of feeding a cyclical reaction machine. We’ve already started to see it in Canada. 

Jurist Florence Ashley wrote a response to Rosie DiManno’s piece in the Star — but it was published on A14, with not nearly the same level of prominence as the original. Meanwhile, for the LGBTQ2S+-focused publication Xtra, Ashley wrote about the worrying rise of trans conversion practices. This is content that should be in the mainstream: the discussion of trans issues in Canada, not just whether we deserve to have rights. 

In Canada, Quebec is currently considering Bill 2, which would force trans people to have gender confirmation surgery to update the sex marker on official documents. The People’s Party of Canada campaigned widely on transphobia, which was not called out or condemned by other major parties. And Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, Canada’s longest running rape crisis centre, still does not offer many of its services to trans people — despite more than half of trans people experiencing intimate partner violence and the organization having its public funding cut in 2019 due to its transphobic practices.

Anti-trans hate is on the rise in Canada in general. Supporting and giving an audience to hateful and harmful views is not good journalism. Hopefully this is just a weird blip in mainstream Canadian media. 

We all need to make it clear that anti-trans views are not welcome — no matter how “feminist” they may claim to be.

V.S. Wells

V. S. Wells is a non-binary writer and journalist originally from the U.K. and now living on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Səl̓ílwətaʔ and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm land in so-called Vancouver, B.C. They are...