In late February, Hamiltonian Debbie Woolridge was travelling by train to Montreal. It was a big trip – she was going to make a significant change.
On a pit stop in Toronto, Woolridge stayed aboard and shared a car with a young woman decked out in Queen’s University gear. Woolridge didn’t pay much attention to her, and made several calls. “I called my friends and talked about what it would be like [after the change],” she said.
As the student left the train in Kingston, she handed Woolridge a piece of paper. “This is yours,” she said. Woolridge didn’t recall dropping anything, but accepted it and opened it later during her trip. “It said, ‘You inspire me,’” Woolridge said.
Woolridge is transgender and was travelling to Montreal for sexual reassignment surgery. When she was on the phone on the train, she spoke to friends about what it would be like after she fully became a woman. The Queen’s student overheard it all. They were later connected through the university’s campus newspaper and are now friends.
On Wednesday, the Ontario legislature passed an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code recognizing gender identity. Toby’s Act was introduced by NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo. The bill is named after her friend and trans activist Toby Dancer, whom DiNovo lost to suicide. Ontario became the second jurisdiction in Canada, after the Northwest Territories, to add gender identity to the Human Rights Code.
Woolridge was there to see the Bill pass. “For me, that Human Rights Bill was my whole lifetime,” she said. “It was an amazing feeling to be there, to actually watch history made and to see all three political parties come together, put their differences aside for equal rights for everyone.” Wednesday was a gratifying day for Woolridge, but she’s had quite the journey, she said.
Born and raised in Hamilton, Woolridge knew at age five she was meant to be female but lived as a male into her 40s.
Woolridge had a wife. They met while bowling, And she has children. In 1998 while on a trip to New York, Woolridge – who was known then as Vern – broke the news to her ex-wife that she was planning to transition to from male to female — on national television.
“I told her that I’ve felt like a woman all my life and that I needed to be that woman who I knew I was,” she said. “It gets to a point where you need to be who you are, or you can’t live.” Woolridge no longer speaks with her ex-wife and currently has no contact with her children.
She started living as a woman full-time about six years ago and it hasn't been easy. “It’s hard to get a job, even after transitioning,” said Woolridge, who is currently unemployed. “There’s a fear of the unknown [for the employer].”
Housing is another problem. Woolridge lives in subsidized housing downtown. “I had an apartment,” she said, and then paused. “It was almost violent. I had people chasing me with bedposts, so I needed to get out of there.” Woolridge said she moved from apartment to apartment, to a rooming house and was even homeless for awhile. She found a safe place to sleep in the woods.
“You can’t go on doing that,” she said. “You need shelter.”
Woolridge eventually found her way to a women’s shelter but even there the rules weren't clear. The shelter didn’t have any transwomen or a policy to accommodate them. So the staff drafted a new set of rules and allowed her to move in. That was two and a half years ago. “She’s become the Den Mother,” said Deirdre Pike, a friend of Debbie’s. “She’s a great shining light for the women.”
When Woolridge returned from Montreal after surgery, her friends from the women’s residence where she lives met her at the train station and threw a party for her that night. “For me that meant a lot because there was my support,” she said. “There are my friends – who I fight for every day – being there for me.”
Woolridge had her gender reassignment surgery on February 27. On her first full day back in Hamilton as a woman, she spoke at an event at city hall. It was March 8 – International Women’s Day. Woolridge talked about what it is like to be a transwoman, and the freedom the LGBTQ community has here compared to other parts of the world.
“What a way to celebrate my new life completely than on International Women’s Day. That’s amazing. It’s how things work,” she said. “If you do good things and you’re heart is in it, that payback comes. The payback doesn’t have to be monetary, it doesn’t have to be anything other than how things work.”
Three months later, Woolridge is thinking about future opportunities, looking for a new place to live and potentially starting her own consulting company. She sits on a city advisory committee for LGBTQ issues, and advises the Hamilton Police Services board as well.
She goes back to speak to students at her former high school, Hillpark Secondary School, and does Positive Space training at various organizations around the city. Woolridge is 55 years old now, and says there is not much left for her to fight for, but she can keep fighting for others.
But it all goes back to the Bill, she said motioning to a copy she had promptly framed Thursday morning, and how transpeople can celebrate this new equality.
“This is Pride week in Hamilton. I couldn’t think of a better or fitting way to celebrate that than the passage of this Bill.”