Advocates for Canadian transgender rights legislation were set back and frustrated with what they say is a "transphobic" Senate committee amendment that limits the effectiveness of the bill.
NDP MP Randall Garrison's private member's bill, C-279, seeks to fight hate crimes against transgender individuals by adding gender identity provisions to both the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
"We still want to support the bill, because it's important for the trans community, but if it's going to have the amendment in it that restricts our use of washrooms and public facilities... no," said Amanda Ryan from the advocacy group Gender Mosaic.
"It's a bad bill with that amendment in it. We want to fight as hard as we can to have that removed," she told CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Thursday.
The bill passed in the House of Commons almost two years ago, thanks to 18 votes from a divided Conservative caucus. Even cabinet ministers were split on the issue.
On Wednesday at the Senate committee finally tasked with reviewing the legislation, Conservative Senator Don Plett introduced three amendments.
Garrison told reporters he didn't have a problem with two of them:
- One is a tactical amendment to make it correspond to other legislation, like C-13, the Tories' cyberbullying legislation.
- The other removes a definition for gender identity not included in his original bill, but added by Commons Conservatives to clarify its application before passage.
The third amendment, however, exempts places like prisons, crisis centres, and public washrooms and change rooms from the bill's provisions. That, Garrison says, is "transphobic."
"That particular amendment is deeply troubling to transgendered people," said Independent Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, who had sponsored the bill in the Senate and led senators from his party in voting against the change.
"I want to acknowledge here, on the record, the deep pain that it causes them," Mitchell said.
Public gender-specific bathrooms can be difficult for transgender individuals. Not only may they find them awkward, but also some experience harassment or even violence as a result of not fitting in with traditional gender roles.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal supports adding transgender identity to federal anti-discrimination legislation to promote acceptance and tolerance.
'We aren't a man in a dress. We are women.' - Amanda Ryan
While some MPs argued that the transgender community already is protected on the basis of sex and disability, the tribunal favours more explicit legal protection.
Critics of the bill dubbed it "the bathroom bill," warning that pedophiles could be protected when they lurked in public bathrooms. They also feared abused women would not feel comfortable among transgender individuals who had biologically male characteristics.
Before the Commons vote in 2013, Conservative MP Rob Anders tabled a petition "on behalf of thousands," saying "these constituents feel that it is the duty of the House of Commons to protect and safeguard our children from any exposure and harm that would come from giving a man access to women's public washroom facilities."
Plett said this week that "this was the major issue raised with us from concerned citizens across the country, most importantly from the operator of an abused women's shelter on a First Nations reserve.
"This in no way hinders human rights protection for the transgendered community. They will still be a recognized group under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and will not be able to face discrimination," the senator said.
"I believe that there’s a small group of senators who are trying to kill the bill, and the Senate Conservative leadership is allowing them to do so," Garrison told reporters in advance.
When the bill's amendments carried at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee Wednesday, supporters of transgender rights walked out.
Ryan, who does outreach for transgender rights, told Power & Politics she has been in women's shelters talking to both clients and staff about how to interact, and it's simply not true that a problem exists.
"A transwoman is a woman. That's a point that has been missed in a lot of these conversations," Ryan told host Evan Solomon. "We aren't a man in a dress. We are women. We were born with the wrong biological parts but we try to act and behave as women."
Ryan said hearing senators like Plett refer to transgender individuals like herself as "biological males" may be technically correct, "but it's insulting."
"There's no recognition of who we are. They've done no homework to find out who a transgendered person is," she said.
The bill now returns to the full Senate for final votes. It's possible the committee's amendments would be rejected at the report stage or third reading of the bill in the Senate, but such rejections are rare.
The legislation then returns to the House, where it may not come up for consideration until late spring. The House can accept or reject the Senate's amendments.
With the fast-diminishing time available in this Parliament before an expected general election, it appears unlikely the bill will pass all the necessary stages in both chambers.