The far left and far right converge on transgender rights in Canada: Neil Macdonald
Some feminist activists are warning that Bill C-16, a new law on transgender rights, goes too far
It's almost a cliché, but nonetheless true: sometimes the left and the right, when they go far enough down their respective rabbit holes, wind up meeting in some strange common burrow and agree, as the wickedly ironic Dr. Frank'N'Furter put it, on the cause, but not the symptom.
It happened in the late '80s, after the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion laws, but allowed that in the later stages of pregnancy, abortion can be subject to reasonable limits to protect the developed fetus or the woman's health, and invited Parliament to rewrite the law.
The House of Commons tried; oh, it tried. Lawmakers cannot resist making new laws, otherwise what use are they?
Brian Mulroney, effectively a pro-choice Roman Catholic (against abortion himself but unwilling to criminalize a woman's decision), wanted a compromise in which militants on both sides of the issue gave some ground.
But it failed, largely because hardline anti-abortion types effectively locked arms with pro-choice absolutists. As a result, Canada is one of the only countries in the world that treats abortion like a tonsillectomy – a medical procedure subject only to normal medical regulation.
The left won, in other words.
The next political issue
It's now 30 years later. A slew of hot-button issues has been settled in the meantime, mostly to the satisfaction of the political left. Gay marriage is no longer even remarkable. Corporal punishment is now regarded as assault. Religion is confined to places of worship, and mostly kept out of the classroom. Cannabis will soon be legal.
Among the issues that remain, one of the most prominent is transgender rights. Granted, it's not as seismic as abortion, and it affects far fewer people – I'm not even sure I know a transgender person – but it's a hot topic.
Risibly, it was a prominent issue in last year's American presidential election. Republican so-cons cried in alarm about allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, which is the guidance former president Barack Obama gave the nation's schools.
In the view of social conservatives, that invites sinister, perverted men to simply declare themselves women, then waltz into girls' bathrooms and locker rooms and satisfy all manner of disgusting urges.
Conservative Republicans began demanding laws obliging people to use the bathroom of the sex marked on their birth certificate.
Happily, though, the attitudes in broader society are moving as quickly on transgender issues as they suddenly did on gay marriage. Businesses began shunning the state of North Carolina for just such a law.
Transgender activists, sensing their time has arrived, have developed a mildly hectoring playbook, as activists tend to do.
Gender, they tell us, is utterly different from sex; the genitalia you're born with are not reliable indicators.
Anyone, they teach, can identify as any gender, and we must respect that. It seems to be a particularly important issue for millennials; assuming someone's gender merely because of their sex indicates "cisnormative" thinking, which is retrograde and to be avoided.
Many transgender individuals demand to be referred to by neologisms like "xe" or the plural-singular "they." Most people I know arch an eyebrow at some of the activist vocabulary, but basically, like me, don't really care who's in the next bathroom stall, or what clothes someone chooses to wear. Live and let live.
So it would seem conservatives are outvoted once again. But wait. Once again, they have found allies on the far left.
Of course they have.
As Canada's new law on transgender rights — Bill C-16, which seeks to shield "gender expression" and "gender identity" from discrimination or hatred — makes its way through Parliament, some feminist activists are warning that it goes too far.
Hilla Kerner, of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, basically told a Senate committee this week that transgender women really aren't women, and threaten the existence of exclusively "female-born" spaces, such as rape crisis centres.
Women who are not born with vaginas, she said, do not have to suffer the second-class existence of "female-born" women. Instead, they could theoretically choose to be a man if they like, which makes them much more privileged.
Those who are not "female-born," she added, cannot "know the embarrassment of having our clothes stained with blood from our period, the anxiety of facing an unwanted pregnancy and the fear of being raped, and we know the comfort of grouping with other women."
Meghan Murphy, a founder of the website Feminist Current, seconded Kerner's remarks, criticizing the proposed law because "it treats gender as a personal choice."
Well. Republicans Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump together couldn't have expressed that thought more perfectly.
- Transgender rights bill threatens 'female-born' women's spaces, activists say
- Transgender Canadians should 'feel free and safe' to be themselves under new Liberal bill
What Kerner and her fellow travelers are arguing is precisely the same brutish, paranoid thinking put forward by those on the Christian conservative right.
Somehow, they see transgender people, who are in fact mercilessly bullied while growing up and are often grappling with despair and confusion about how they fit in, as threats.
They are not threats. They are the threatened, for heaven's sake. And my guess is they absolutely understand the fear of being raped.
They should expect women like Kerner and Murphy to lend them a hand, not pile on.
When I saw the story about the Senate testimony this week, I sent it to a sharp young gay acquaintance I'm rather close to, inviting comment.
The reply was a link to something called the Urban Dictionary's definition of the term TERF.
A TERF is, apparently, a "trans-exclusionary radical feminist," someone belonging to "that group of feminists that claims that trans women aren't really women, as biological determinism is only a fallacy when it's used against them, not when they use it against others."
Well. I'm not keen on these endless neologistic acronyms, but just so.