Feminist activists in Canada say they’re being “bullied and blackmailed” by a powerful union group because they’ve raised concerns about how a proposed transgender rights bill could destroy exclusively “female-born” women’s spaces like rape crisis centers.
The transgender rights bill, titled C-16, would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the protections outlined in the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code. The House of Commons, which voted in favor of the bill, sent the proposed law changes to the Senate last November.
But “there is no social consensus on what these terms mean,” said Hilla Kerner, a spokeswoman for the collective of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter.
She recently testified to the Red Chamber committee studying the bill, saying this change could interfere with women’s ability to organize, fight for women’s rights, and raise consciousness about issues affecting women. Women’s groups must have “the right to decide who they will serve and who their members are,” she told us.
Kerner’s organization also told the committee that her organization blocked a post-operation transgender woman from volunteering as a rape counselor because, according to her, she didn’t have sufficient “life experience” to relate to women who are escaping abusive relationships.
Earlier this year British Columbia Federation of Labour, an umbrella organization representing many union groups, unanimously passed a resolution calling on all their affiliates to avoid donating to “trans* exclusionary organizations,” specifically mentioning the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.
The measure amounts to a de facto boycott of the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, the oldest rape crisis center in Canada, Kerner said. Already, the group has been disinvited from union events, and union-affiliated speakers have also had to cancel scheduled addresses.
“They are interfering with our political work, our public work,” Kerner said. “This is an informal attempt to bully us and blackmail us to change our position.”
“We cannot have legislation that ignores what it means to be born female,” Kerner explained to Heat Street. “This law is not explicitly calling for that, but surely there will be the implication of forcing the hand of women’s groups to accept self-identified women, even though they lived all their life with male privilege.”
She added: “We were born without the choice of being a woman or not. People can have whatever feelings they have, but I think it’s a mistake to define womanhood on internal feeling and not based on the experience of woman’s oppression.”
Kerner told Heat Street she supports transgender rights and acknowledges the oppression transgender people face.
“We know from our life as women, every time we challenge what it is to be a woman in this patriarchal society, we face punishment– so we have a lot of sympathy for transgender people,” she said.
But she said the transgender community needs to create and run its own organizations instead of merely joining groups founded to serve those who were born female and have lived their entire lives as women.