The Current

Does the government's transgender rights bill threaten female-only spaces?

A member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter says Bill C-16 will erode the advances made to recognize the unique dangers and challenges facing women.
Charlie Lowthian-Rickert, 10, who is transgender, is comforted by her parents after speaking on Parliament Hill about legislation intended to protect her gender identity and gender expression. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Bill C-16, which is headed towards becoming law in June, would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, and would protect trans people from hate speech.

It is being touted as another step towards a more inclusive, diverse Canada.

But Hilla Kerner, a member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter who testified against Bill C-16 in the Senate, says the legislation will erode the work that has been done to recognize the unique challenges facing women and girls .

"The bill is not about immediate legal protection. It's supposed to create a world view — to set some vision of what society we want to have. And the terms 'gender' and 'gender expression' here are completely contradicting to the feminist analysis that we have about gender." 
Hilla Kerner told a Senate committee the transgender rights bill could threaten 'female-only' women's spaces. (Eric Dreger/Canadian Press)

Kerner believes there are "concrete differences" between women and men that are not defined by biological differences, but social conditioning. However, it is one's sex at birth that determines which gender is assigned, at least as children. 

"Even though we do agree sex should not matter, as long as we live under the patriarchy, sex matters a lot. Once we are born female, we are born to the oppressed class.  So, we wanted a bill that articulates the rights of transgender people, and protects those rights, without undermining an understanding of women's oppression and female-born women's oppression."

But Kerner and her organization have faced controversy for their 12-year legal battle to block a post-operative trans woman from volunteering with them as a front-line rape counsellor.

They argued the trans woman did not have adequate "life experience" to relate to women fleeing violence perpetrated by men.

'I feel much safer'

7 years ago
Duration 0:54
Ten year-old Charlie Lowthian-Rickert, who is transgender, speaks along side Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould

When asked whether the implication of the case was transgender women should not be considered "real women," Kerner tells The Current she finds such concepts oppressive, and is advocating the right for women's groups to decide how they operate.

"We assist probably 1,200 women every year, and another 100 women and their children are living in our transition house. We offer them peer counseling based on the concept of consciousness-raising in a shared experience in the world as people who were born female."

Trans women, according to Kerna, have "a different experience."

Listen to her full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.