Transgender refugee defies critics by inviting military recruiters to a trans job fair

A transgender Kenyan refugee is defiant in the face of accusations she’s being racist, and "inherently violent," for inviting the Canadian Armed Forces to a job fair aimed at helping transgender people find work.

Trans group calls job fair 'extremely disrespectful' and 'a racist act'

Biko Beauttah is being attacked for inviting military recruiters to a trans job fair. 'I think getting trans people jobs is not something that you should try and stop people from doing,' she says. (CBC/Paul Borkwood)

A transgender Kenyan refugee is defiant in the face of accusations she's being racist and "inherently violent," for inviting the Canadian Armed Forces to a job fair aimed at helping transgender people find work.

"I am a trans woman of colour. I moved here with nothing," said Biko Beauttah in defence of her decision. "I have all these systemic problems."

Beauttah was born in Mombasa, Kenya. On Feb. 25, 2006, at the age of 26, she fled to Canada.

"It is not safe for me to live there as a trans person because I could be killed," she said. "It's illegal to be who I am in Kenya ... I'm considered a criminal basically just by being me."

Looking back at pictures of herself as a little boy, Biko Beauttah says she just sees 'a happy child.' (CBC/Paul Borkwood)

Beauttah says she left her wealthy family in Africa and arrived in Canada with just $200 in her pocket. She spent her first six months at a refugee shelter in Toronto.

She has struggled to find work over the past 11 years, at points turning to the sex trade to pay her rent.

"The barriers all result from a society that is probably not educated, ignorant or just transphobic, and I don't know why, but it's a struggle for trans people."

This was the first piece of identification issued to Biko Beauttah by the Canadian authorities when she arrived in Toronto seeking asylum in 2006. (CBC/Paul Borkwood)

Now 37, she has organized a transgender job fair called Trans Workforce set for Monday, Nov. 20, at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

She calls it her way to "celebrate" Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international day to honour trans people who have died as a result of prejudice, discrimination and violence.

"I'm hoping to inspire some other trans people who maybe can see themselves at a low point in their life and realize that all you need is an idea and people to support you to change the world," she said.

Diversity 'makes us stronger,' says Canadian Armed Forces

Lt.-Cmdr. Peter Antonew, the Armed Forces' commanding officer at the Southern Ontario recruiting centre, confirmed the forces are sending recruiters to the job fair. 

"I haven't really looked at it as a unique, special opportunity … This is just another opportunity to be out there and talk to people," he said. "The Canadian Armed Forces wants to reflect and follow along with the Canadian ideals where we have respect, inclusion and diversity."

Depending on operational requirements,  Antonew said, the military is sending two transgender members as part of its recruiting team — "partially to answer questions probably about lifestyle, but also to talk about life in the forces and the careers they are doing in the forces as well."

Lt.-Cmdr. Peter Antonew says diversity in his ranks helps the Canadian Armed Forces accomplish its missions. (CBC/Paul Borkwood)

"It makes us stronger, a little more innovative, a little more forward thinking," he said. "I've worked with people who are transgender in the armed forces and at the end of the day they're as qualified, talented, motivated to do the job as anybody else, so we just work as a team."

'A racist act,' trans group says 

Transroots Toronto, a group that says it consists of trans people of colour, call Beauttah's job fair an "affront" to the trans community and sent Beauttah 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.

Trans job fair draws criticism

5 years ago
Duration 4:46
A transgender Kenyan refugee defies critics after inviting the Canadian Armed Forces to her transgender-focused job fair

"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."

Chaudhary, who established Transroots Toronto in 2015, is a Pakistani trans woman. She says Beauttah has failed to consult the wider trans community.

"[Members of the trans community] do have our differences and for Biko to do this on her own, I take difference with that," Chaudhary said.

She also said Beauttah was "exploiting" the Trans Day of Remembrance, and wrote it was "extremely disrespectful" to hold it on the day of mourning.

'You can't have it both ways'

Militaries hold a special place in Beauttah's heart, as her grandfather was in Kenya's navy.

"I know he would have been so proud to see me do this and I'm glad the armed forces are coming," she said.

She pointed out that as a black refugee who is transgender she is familiar with the systemic violence and prejudice her community faces.

She also accuses some who oppose inviting military recruiters to the job fair of hypocrisy, and uses the negative reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to ban trans people from the military as an example.

On July 26, Trump tweeted that transgender people are a "distraction" and said their "tremendous medical costs" are a burden to the military.

"The people who are protesting the Canadian Armed Forces coming to Trans Workforce, what do they have to say about the American president and the American military situation with trans people?" said Beauttah. "Do they protest that and protest this at the same time? Like, you have to pick one, you can't have it both ways."

In a statement, Pride Toronto pledged support for Trans Workforce and pointed out that Beauttah is on Pride's executive board.

"We believe that this is an excellent way to connect skilled and talented trans individuals with ally employers and good jobs, which is a win for everyone," wrote Pride communication officer Ryan Connelly.