What would make life easier for the trans community? Give them IDs, to start

Canada is currently a very uneven space for trans people. Streamlining changes to identity documents could make a huge difference.

Apologies are nice, but what the LGBTQ2 community really needs is action

People participate in the Trans Pride March in Toronto on July 1, 2016. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Edmonton Centre MP Randy Boissonnault as his special advisor on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and two-spirited (LGBTQ2) issues.

Boissonnault comes into the role with a full roster of matters waiting for attention, including a long-promised government apology for past discriminations against members of the LGBTQ2 community. Those sorts of gestures are positive and necessary, but more important is action for those dealing with day-to-day struggles caused by outdated laws and piecemeal policies.

These adversities are felt most profoundly among Canada's trans community — specifically, those who are the most marginalized within an already marginalized group: trans women of colour, trans migrants, trans sex workers, First Nations trans people, Two-Spirit individuals, and trans visible minorities — people for whom basic activities such as applying for a job, signing a lease or going to the post office to pick up a parcel can be daunting.
(Zoe Todd/CBC)

Why? It's simple: ID. Proving who you are is a constant source of anxiety when identification documents do not match your lived gender.

Identity limbo

Canada is currently a very uneven space for trans people, considering that health care and identity documents generally fall under provincial legislation, and different provinces have different requirements for gender marker change.

In Quebec, for example, the law stipulates that one must be a Canadian citizen to apply for a name and gender marker change on legal documents. For a migrant, this process can take seven to 10 years — plunging them into an identity limbo in the interim.

This is a situation that a trans woman I spoke to, who came to Montreal from Tunisia five years ago, knows all too well. Many trans migrants flee their home countries to escape persecution and come to Canada in search of a "safe haven," but for this person, her reality has been anything but safe. Not legally recognized as a woman, she must develop a strategy to navigate the situation every time she needs to show a government-issued ID — to apply for housing, for example — since her name and gender presentation do not match the name and sex listed on the ID.

The trans experience varies widely from province to province. (Vieux-Montréal/Twitter)

"I didn't expect to come here and have to survive all over again," she says. "I still have my deadname [birth name] preventing me from finding a job; from finding a landlord who isn't transphobic. I've had doctors tell me that they don't treat patients like me."

Although she will soon be able to apply for a permanent resident card, until she becomes a Canadian citizen, her Quebec medicare card will still bear her former male name and wrong gender marker. Consequently, she is sometimes forced to publicly out herself as a trans person to strangers and is vulnerable to transphobia and violence. She has even been accused of stealing an identity.

This person's situation is far from unique, yet trans experiences are not homogeneous and cannot be examined through a single lens. "When I apply for a job, there's the factor of being a migrant; I'm a visible minority plus the fact that I'm trans," she says.

Trans people of colour—particularly trans women of colour — face a disproportionate amount of violence compared to their white counterparts. Their intersectional discrimination can never be lived by someone who only lives the discrimination of trans — not that any of it is easy.

Trying to survive

Indeed, the trans woman from Tunisia says she knows numerous trans people who, because of the struggles caused by the mismatch between their lived identity and their legal documents, have turned to sex work to pay rent, buy food and survive.

But when trans people are supported, they thrive. Research published in the journal BMC Public Health in June 2015 found that, "social support, reduced transphobia, and having any personal identification documents changed to an appropriate sex designation were associated with large relative and absolute reductions in suicide risk."

This is an area in which Randy Boissonnault can and should take immediate action. We need coordination between the provinces, territories and federal government, and real changes to tackle discrimination faced by Canada's trans communities. Let's start with getting them proper IDs.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section,  please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Helen Wolkowicz is a freelance writer with a focus on transgender issues and identities.