Culture War: Trans-Sexual Fights for Right to Counsel Rape Victims

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

Vancouver, B.C. (CNSNews.com) - Should men who have undergone sex change operations be allowed to counsel female rape victims? A Canadian organization is grappling with that issue, after a transsexual woman charged the Vancouver Rape Relief Society with unjustly refusing to let her help women who had been assaulted.

This is the latest in a series of cases brought before the provincial Human Rights Tribunal by male-to-female transsexuals, and it reflects efforts by the so-called transgender movement to occupy an increasingly prominent role in society.

Kimberly Nixon, a 43-year-old former pilot who claims to have lived as a woman for 19 years, said she was humiliated, even suicidal, when the rape-relief society told her that her volunteer counseling services were not welcome.

The rape-relief society argues that it has the right to enforce its own well-thought-out policies. The society believes that vulnerable women should not be counseled by someone who has had the experience of being a man.

"Women can be fearful of men and of people they think are men," the society's lawyer Victoria Gray told the tribunal. "It is not appropriate to include a person who has been treated as a man.

"Just as the medical profession ought to be able to study the effect of a drug on people born with ovaries, so too rape relief ought to be able to engage in consciousness-raising with people of a relevant, similar life experience," Gray added.

According to documents on the rape relief society's website, some feminists believe that the trans-gender movement, with its predominant trend of male-to-female sex changes, is damaging their efforts to modify a male-dominated society.

Added society spokesperson Suzanne Jay: "It's very important for women to be able to organize with whom we want...in order to better deal with the whole weight of patriarchy."

Division over 'Inclusion'

In Toronto, the issue of inclusion has surfaced as the city struggles to provide emergency beds for an estimated 100 homeless transsexuals. In late February, the Salvation Army banned transsexuals from its 120-bed facility on the grounds that it was contracted by the city to provide spaces for only "100 percent females" and couples.

The action was condemned as discriminatory by some feminist and trans-gender organizations. Alison Kemper, director of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, which works with transsexuals, said the city is contravening its own anti-discrimination policy by allowing exclusion on the basis of gender. "People are very angry about it," she said.

Nevertheless, Kemper acknowledged that some transsexuals -- members of what she called a routinely ostracized and isolated group -- have serious problems and can be difficult to house.

In late 1998, the Ontario provincial government stopped financing sex-change operations, which cost about $77,000 in the U.S. Some men were caught in the middle of the process, and could not afford to complete it. "Many are very poor and have no access to [provincial health services] or the thousands of dollars to go to a doctor in Thailand or Bulgaria," Kemper reported.

The City of Toronto provides 5,000 emergency beds nightly and adds between 200 and 300 beds every year. Hostel services director John Jagt said that while he supports the integration of transsexuals, experience shows that some demand or require at least separate, dedicated beds within a mixed-population facility.

"All the shelters need to make everybody feel well and safe -- but let's be realistic, it doesn't always work that way," Jagt said. Some men who consider themselves female are uncomfortable in a male facility, while a women's shelter may be unsuitable too, he said.

"Even if a man changes his whole demeanor and begins to look and act like a woman in every way, he may still be big or strong. There are a lot of issues, and it's not easy. This is a unique and special group and that warrants separate services to an extent."

Jagt also pointed out that a large city deals with a variety of trans-gender people, including transsexuals, bi-sexuals, transvestites and people who consider themselves both male and female, or hermaphrodites.

"We get your guys that are hustling sex on the street who are dressed as pretty girls, but are selling to gay and straight companions, and they're still heterosexuals," he added. "It all gets very complex and confusing."

On the other hand, advocates for the trans-gender community argue that the only acceptable solution is education and legal action that results in full acceptance of all trans-gender people in any situation.

Said Barbara Findlay, a lesbian activist and Vancouver lawyer for Kimberly Nixon: "This is a new fear, but it's not a new phobia. In the U.S. South, when slavery was being eliminated, there were many laws preventing black and white people from being in the same space. There were boundaries and rules that people felt comfortable with, but they didn't contribute to understanding or to safety and equality."

On the civil libertarian front, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has in the past rejected arguments that feminist groups have a constitutional right to their own policies. In another case, the Vancouver Lesbian Connection closed its doors after being ordered to pay a man who claimed to be a woman $1,920 for banning him from its drop-in centre.

In a third case, a man who dressed as a woman, but had not had a sex change, won $1,280 in damages from a Victoria, B.C. bar for refusing him access to the women's washroom.

Nixon, who is now married and living in the U.S., has demanded $6,400 in compensation from the rape relief society. At the same time, she has refused the society's offer of a position on its fund-raising committee on the grounds that the committee includes males. A decision is expected in about a month.