A Toronto job fair aimed at helping transgender people find work went ahead as scheduled Monday, amid charges by critics that the event was racist and "inherently violent" because Canadian Armed Forces recruiters were invited.
More than a dozen prospective employers took part in the Trans Workforce job fair at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which coincided with Trans Remembrance Day.
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"The military has been really wonderful for me, and it could be for anybody if they choose to join," said Master Cpl. Natalie Murray. "There are no barriers."
Murray joined the military in 1983 as a reservist. Twenty years later, she came out as transgender.
"It was horrible," she told CBC Toronto's Chris Glover. "The system was wonderful — they gave me everything I needed. I couldn't have asked for anything more. My peers and superiors, on the other hand, treated me less than favourably."
At the time, Murray was only the eighth Canadian Forces member to transition. Now, she estimates about 300 members are trans.
"For many years, I was the only one that would stand up and speak out and be there for anybody else that followed," she said. "I like to think that because of me, people have had it better since."
Murray says she feels privileged to have been invited to Monday's transgender job fair, and is proud to represent her country at such an event. There is always more work to be done when it comes to LGBT rights, she admits — but this is a step.
'An inherently violent act'
The military's presence at the event first came under fire with some people calling the job fair an "affront" to the trans community. As CBC Toronto reported last week, Transroots Toronto, a group that says it consists of trans people of colour, sent the event's organizer an email calling on her to change or cancel her event.
"Given the ongoing history of military and police violence against trans people ... having military or police present at an event specifically for trans people of colour is an inherently violent act," Transroots founder Abuzar Chaudhary said in the email.
"The violence faced by trans community members today is a direct consequence of these military actions and the colonial state and society they created and continue to support, and it disproportionately targets our racialized community members. Therefore, having military recruiters at a Trans Day of Remembrance event is a racist act."
"I definitely understand where they're coming from," said Scarlett Jodha, the emcee for Monday's event. "When that backlash came our way, I knew exactly where the intentions were. But I feel like the one misconception is where our intentions were.
"Our vision is to make today a day of improvement and progress for those who still possess the ability to celebrate life and make changes for themselves and others."
Having the military there "meant the world," said job fair attendee Lillian Embrack.
"If I'm able to serve a country that supports me and my community, it just reaches out to everybody, you know? And it'll touch other people, too."
Embrack says the job fair enabled her to get to know her community better. Employers there were friendly, accepting and curious — a far cry, she says, from others she's encountered on the job hunt.
Meantime, Murray was direct in her rebuttal of the accusations from Transroots Toronto.
"They do not have a right to dictate to anybody what their career path should be," she said. "I am proud to serve my country, and it's got nothing to do with the fact that I happen to be trans.
"The military is a cross-section of Canadian society. We are inclusive."
'There are so many factors'
Organizer Biko Beauttah said the response to the job fair was "tremendous." Beauttah, a Kenyan refugee, said she's passionate about finding work for transgender people because she's in the community herself.
"I'm so happy to have finally created a space where employers can mingle and interact with trans-identifying job seekers without fear of discrimination and harassment," she said. "I think this is the first step in cracking the last glass ceiling of the gay liberation movement."
Jodha, the emcee of the job fair, was outed as transgender at 16. Now 19, she said finding work has been rough.
"There's a huge difficulty with not only how you see yourself, but ... with how people see you," she said. "There's this huge issue with walking up to a place, handing them a resume, and expecting to be taken seriously as a trans person."
She said people who are transgender never know if their employer will accept them, let alone their co-workers.
"There are so many factors to finding work as a trans person that makes it so much harder to do."
Beauttah said part of the solution to break down barriers is having an event like Monday's job fair, to showcase talent among the community.
"We're also putting our name out there in the spotlight, to where people can sort of find normalcy in how they relate to us."