Medicine Hat judges ordered 4-year-old not to wear girls' clothes in public

The mom of a young child born as a boy but who she says identifies as a girl plans to launch a human rights complaint against the Alberta judges who ordered her child not to wear girls' clothing in public.

3rd judge to rule said child can choose male or female clothing

This child in Medicine Hat, Alta., was born male but at age four expressed the desire to dress as a girl, the mother says. (Susan Smith)

Update added Oct. 31, 2016: After the CBC first published this story, legal experts clarified that judges are not subject to human rights legislation and suggested the appropriate procedure for the mother if she wanted to raise concerns about a court order would be to file a complaint through the Office of the Chief Judge.

Susan Smith says she remembers walking out of the court room in Medicine Hat, Alta., last December in shock after a judge ordered that her four-year-old child would not be allowed to wear feminine clothing in public.

It happened in family court during a custody battle. Smith was the primary caregiver. CBC News is not using her real name to protect the identity of the child.

"My first reaction to that was kind of like an out-of-body experience, like this isn't my life, this isn't happening, and then complete fear of how am I going to break it to my kid," says Smith.   

Smith's family's story begins a few years ago when the young child, who was born male, first started telling Smith she was a girl. Her child is now five years old.

Smith refers to her child as "they" rather than the less gender-neutral pronouns of "him" or "her."

"And when they're really that young it's really cute ... and I just left it like that."

But over time Smith says her child became more insistent, introducing herself as a girl to others. When Smith would say things like "you're such a good boy," the child would act out in frustration and anger.

'My child was severely unhappy'

Then one day, at the age of four, Smith says her child asked her how old she was when her penis fell off. 

The child's mother and her lawyer want the courts to seek a psychiatric assessment, but the child's father and child's court-appointed counsel are opposed. (Photo contributed)

"I explained to them the female and male anatomy and that what you get when you're born is what remains your entire life," says Smith.

 A few days later, she says her child woke up in the middle of the night to tell Smith she was going to cut off her penis.

"My child was severely unhappy and was prepared to do anything to prove to mom that they were not a boy. It was basically like a ton of bricks, I got hit. It was a major wakeup call."

Smith says she then sought some professional help, started researching gender dysphoria and decided to acknowledge her child's preferred identity.

"Our eyes locked and it was maybe the millionth time they told me they were a girl ... and I promised I was going to do whatever I could to validate and support them and to be that one person they could go to."

She says as soon as she did, the outbursts and the tantrums were replaced with a happy, confident child.

3rd judge ruled child can choose boy or girl clothing

Smith and the child's father are separated and share custody.

Smith says she told the father what had happened and about her decision to support their child. Weeks later he served her with papers seeking primary custody, blaming Smith for the child's gender confusion and anxiety.

When the two went to family court in Medicine Hat in December, 2015, Judge Derek Redman kept Smith as primary caregiver, but in his interim order, said the child would not be permitted to wear clearly female clothes in public, but if desired, could do so in private. 

Then in February, the case went before Judge Fred Fisher. In his interim order, he again stated the clothing restriction and granted primary custody to the father. Smith was given limited access.

By this past September, the interim clothing order was revised by a third provincial court judge. Judge Gordon Krinke said, after consulting with a parenting expert, the parents must provide both boy and girl clothing options and the child can then choose from those options.

Court order went against Bill of Rights, advocate says

Angela Reid, with the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, says this unusual court order dictating the type of clothing a child wears goes against Alberta's Bill of Rights.

She says gender identity and gender expression are both protected, and the legislation does not require a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or any other medical condition; these rights apply to everyone. 

"If it's actually a boy who thinks he's a boy but he wants to wear dresses anyway, that is totally OK, and that should not be prevented by the court," says Reid.

The fact that we're seeing multiple cases where someone's gender expression is being dictated by the court tells us that perhaps a more visible ruling that it's not OK in our court system would be useful.- Angela Reid, Trans Equality Society of Alberta

Reid says this is the third case she's seen like this. However it's the only one involving a child in a custody case. In the other situations, she says it's the parents who aren't being allowed to dress in the clothing of their choice when visiting their children.

"The fact that we're seeing multiple cases where someone's gender expression is being dictated by the court tells us that perhaps a more visible ruling that, that it's not OK in our court system, would be very useful," says Reid.

Smith says she doesn't know if her child is just curious, or is transgender, but she says it doesn't matter to her. She says what does matter is that the courts respect the right of gender expression.

She plans to launch a human rights complaint against the two judges, and continue to fight to regain primary custody.

"I'm not going to hide under a rock and just give up — this is still a big fight."

CBC News reached out to the father's lawyer, but he has declined to comment.

Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said while she cannot comment on specific cases, the government is supportive of gender minorities.

"Last fall, we amended the Alberta Human Rights Act, adding gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination," she said in a statement.

"This is now law, and we expect all Albertans to follow the law."


Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.