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Seeking the magic ingredient

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Along with a cultural history favouring chosen families, GLBT* people hold an openness to creating new family forms. Some of this comes with biology, and some comes from social-political pressures. For many queer parents-to-be, finding sperm is a key part of planning a pregnancy.

Lesbian cis partners and single queer uterus-possessing parents are some of the most likely queer families to seek sperm when they decide to have kids. Trans parents of any gender, depending on hormones and biology, may find themselves looking as well.

So how do queer parents who need sperm get started? There are legal issues, relationships and roles to define, costs, and preferences to consider. The two basic routes to acquiring sperm are through either a sperm bank or a known donor.

“Unknown donor sperm is often seen as desirable because it allows lesbians to parent with autonomy and security,” writes Joanna Radbord in her 2010 paper GLBT Familes and Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Radbord is a Toronto-based lawyer who has won awards for her focus on GLBT* legal equality. The issues can be expanded to include queer parents of other genders too. She says unknown donor sperm is the route most lesbian partners take.

While it does protect the parents legally, unknown donor sperm is costly and sometimes ineffective. There’s also a shortage of ethnically-diverse donors in the Canadian sperm pool because of how it’s set up.

Known donors

Sperm from known donors provides less legal security, but is a do-it-yourself route many prospective queer parents are choosing. Although some believe there is a legal risk of prosecution with self-insemination, Health Canada has stated the intention of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which governs these activities, does not intend government involvement in the private matter of home insemination.

“If it’s a classic turkey baster at-home insemination, no one’s ever been prosecuted for that and I don’t imagine that anybody would be,” says Karen Busby, professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba. Busby’s work focuses on GLBT* legal issues and she’s been key in shaping Manitoba’s laws on same-sex relationships, which are the most comprehensive in North America.

Her advice to people using known donors is, “Make sure you talk as much as possible with the known donor about what expectations are and then see a lawyer to write up an agreement.”

She refers to such agreements as “arrangements,” and is clear that what they do is express the intentions of the parties involved. Without consulting a lawyer, she says, people are unlikely to cover all of the issues they need to. But if push comes to shove and there’s a legal dispute, this contract is not what’s going to determine a judge’s decision. In family law, a court will never ask the question, ‘What were the contractual arrangements?’ The court will always ask the question instead, ‘What’s in the best interest of the child?’ says Busby.

A Montréal donor, who wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of the couple he’s helping, did just this and drew up an agreement in consultation with lawyers and the couple.

“The idea was for me to give up all rights and responsibilities to the extent that the law makes that possible,” he says. “The parents, i.e. not me, will have full freedom—they’ll be considered the legal parents, they’ll have custody, they’ll be allowed to move with the child if they want to. They’ll cover all the costs.”

Interestingly, a known donor is technically unable to give up child support rights because it falls under the rights of the child.

And although technically issues could arise, Busby points out many people using known donors don’t have agreements drawn up, and most of the time things work out just fine.

It gets more complicated if those using known donors also have problems conceiving. “The law around sperm donation is absurdly restrictive in my view, because if you’re not in a sexual relationship with the person, the sperm must be held in quarantine for six months before it can be used,” says the Montréal donor.

After the tainted blood scandal in the ’80s, the Canadian government became extremely risk-averse to the possibility of HIV, and so fertility clinics operate under a law that says they have to hold sperm for six months and re-test donors. The law also ends up being homophobic, because straight couples are allowed treatment right away, since they’re considered to be in contact with each other’s fluids anyhow. Even if someone has been previously trying with a donor’s sperm for months, the clinic must quarantine it if they’re not in a sexual relationship.

In the Montréal donor’s case, the couple had hoped to have his sperm frozen and shipped to another part of the country, but barriers became excessive. He discovered his sperm dies when frozen, something that happens to some sperm and not other, and researchers are unsure why. “The [quarantine] law is self-defeating in a way,” he says. “It probably drives people to… bypass the clinic system entirely.”

…talk as much as possible with the known donor about what expectations are and then see a lawyer to write up an agreement.”

This is particularly the case if someone wants to use a gay man’s sperm for conception. Sperm donation for gay men is only allowed with special doctor’s permission, a relic of homophobic policies from the ’80s. This means it can only easily be used if someone has no trouble conceiving and does not have to go through fertility clinics.

Unknown donor sperm – issues to consider

Another reason people use fertility clinics is to access sperm from an unknown donor. The process usually begins at a doctor’s office with a referral.Importantly, human rights legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status for those seeking reproductive assistance. As of August 2012, trans rights are protected in Manitoba as well.

Because most fertility clinics were set up to treat infertile heterosexual couples, there are varying levels of awareness when dealing with GLBT* clients.

The Toronto-based LGBTQ Parenting Network has some tips for queer people navigating the clinics. The network’s guidebook on assisted human reproduction notes the “norm” for clinics is heterosexual, cisgender clients who are partnered or married with access to two incomes.

This can mean intake forms lack appropriate places to record gender identity, sexual orientation, relationship status or family configuration. The counsellors at the clinic may not understand realities specific to GLBT* reproductive choices and parenting plans. This will vary widely by clinic.

Know that fertility clinics are privately-operated and most of their services are not covered under Manitoba Health.

Also know that the technology exists for HIV-positive people to conceive and give birth to children without transmission. As of August 2012, the guidebook notes, there were six clinics in Canada offering pregnancy support services to HIV-positive people.

Family law is presently receiving an update in Manitoba to recognize that some children have more than two legal parents. This will open the way for queer families to include more people on a child’s birth certificate. While some people reproduce as couples, others wish to have their donor and maybe his husband or partner involved in the child’s life. Still others have family forms as unique as the relationships they negotiate. While family law across Canada is uneven and unprepared to deal with this reality, it’s evolving and beginning to catch up.

First published in Winnipeg’s OutWords Magazine, Aug 2015

http://outwords.ca/2015/issue-fall-2015/seeking-the-magic-ingredient/


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially when it comes to other queers.

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March 13, 2016 at 11:02 pm

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Queer polyamory

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Dreaming the road to freedom

Among the many ways to do relationships, polyamory stands out in many people’s minds as an ideal version of perhaps unattainable freedom. But for polyamorous people, it’s a practical kind of freedom that exists in a context of deep intimacy.

Most polyamorous people stress the importance of communication, knowing limits and needs, and hashing out a relationship that fulfills the deeper desires of all involved. Openness and accountability are values most aspire to.

And while some see poly as their orientation, others use it to describe how they structure their relationships.

The thing most polyamorous relationships have in common is their capacity for multiple honest loves.

There are other kinds of non-monogamy: open relationships, swinging, polygamy and, of course, cheating, but these are distinct. While some open relationships overlap with poly, “open” is often used to describe sexual activity outside a couple.

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Bram Singleton and Anlina Sheng are each involved in polyamorous relationships.

 

Why polyamory?

“I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation because there was finally a label for this stuff that I was already doing,” says Sheng, who is 33 and the founder of PolyWinnipeg, a local group that holds monthly talks and events. “I’ve been doing non-monogamy pretty much my entire dating life.”

Sheng’s style of poly involves separate relationships that can be described as “Vs.” The relationships are called this because one person is linked to two or more other partners, but those partners aren’t linked romantically with each another.

“I like it when everyone can be comfortable with each other and spend time with each other, but it’s not particularly important to me to do the big happy family style of poly,” they say.

For the most part, they’ve considered themselves a solo poly person, highly valuing their independence and autonomy.

While this is one form of polyamory, there are more closely knit relationship scenarios that others—like Kyle, a 24-year-old Winnipegger—aspire to. Kyle’s polyamorous roots began about a year ago when he entered a triad relationship, joining an existing couple. Although it didn’t work out, he learned a lot.

“What I found from that was, as a person who identifies as bisexual, having a male and a female in the same relationship with me really allowed me to pursue both halves of myself.”

He describes it as feeling complete and is looking for a three-person relationship in the future. “It’s kind of like a monogamous relationship except that it has a requirement for one more person,” he says.

Kyle’s also open to being part of a quad—a four-person unit—and the idea of a poly family appeals immensely. He sees the benefits as being an abundance of support and intimacy.

I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation…

He describes watching a movie with his boyfriend at home while their girlfriend went on a date. She’d come home and tell them how it went, and if it wasn’t good, they’d support her. “We’d give her a big hug, and we’d make some more popcorn, and we’d start another movie,” he says. “It felt good to encourage my partners to go out and find more people.” He felt a sense of both liberation and comfort in this safety net.

Mitra, who helps run a polyamory group in Edmonton, has identified as poly for more than five years, since she was 25. And she didn’t get into polyamory on purpose. “I had actually thought that I would choose monogamy,” she says. But when she fell in love with a poly man, she began to ask herself some questions. She realized poly seemed more difficult to do in the world, but the inconvenience didn’t outweigh the emotional benefits.

“My life partner and I have a very open approach where we don’t give each other permission to do anything. We are free to do whatever we wish,” she says. With a foundation of open communication, respect and consideration, Mitra has the freedom to allow whatever develops romantically and sexually with anyone else. She also avoids the use of terms like “primary partner” because it implies other relationships would be secondary. Her life partner lives with his wife, and they’re Mitra’s neighbours. Mitra also has other partners.

Part of polyamory’s beauty is its insistence upon openness regarding desires. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the skill set polyamorous people need to develop to be successful can benefit any relationship. Communication, learning the specifics of your own needs, desires and boundaries, and hearing those of a partner deeply are skills that cultivate intimacy. Learning to negotiate agreements and create realistic expectations are useful for anyone. Understanding jealousy triggers is good work as well. All of these are necessary for good poly relationships, and too often in default monogamy, the work to build these connecting skills is left undone.

As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rulebook goes straight out the door

Tips to a happy poly life

“I think the one thing that people should remember is not to make any assumptions,” says Mitra. Because polyamory is so different from other social norms, you can’t assume what the other person thinks, believes or wants. She warns that even if people think they’re not making assumptions, they probably are. That’s something to be conscious of.

Kyle has a similar tip. “It’s all about communication. As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rulebook goes straight out the door. There are no rules because we didn’t grow up with any kind of media to guide us through this kind of process. So if you’re really not comfortable with hashing out exactly how you feel about everything, then it’s going to end badly. Talking, talking, talking about everything is vitally important. There’s a lot more risk involved, but there’s a lot more reward too. Poly relationships can be explosively fun, but they can also explode.”

Kyle suggests defining the power structure of a relationship from the get-go: is it equal partners, primary/secondary, or something else?

Sheng advises knowing your own needs and desires, being able to set boundaries, and understanding what you can control and what’s not appropriate to control. It’s also important to remember that polyamorous people are not more enlightened or superior. That assumption is untrue and obnoxious.

What to watch out for

A bad first experience with poly doesn’t mean polyamory isn’t for you, says Sheng, although it’s OK if it isn’t. They recommend learning from other’s mistakes and remembering to do what feels right. “Don’t let anyone tell you there is one true way to do polyamory,” they say.

Sheng’s seen people put up with things they would never tolerate in monogamous relationships and advises new polyamorists-to-be to keep themselves safe. “I see a lot of particularly young bisexual women who are targeted by couples who are looking to date as a triad, and who get treated horrendously badly,” Sheng says. Don’t put up with anything that ignores your instincts and invalidates your experiences. If you feel there’s something wrong, there probably is. Polyamory does not equate to finding a way to accept being unhappy. Abuse can come in any relationship and it can be confusing for a new poly person to untangle and navigate the forms that abusive manipulation can take.

Resources

Whether new to polyamory or not, having a support network of other polyamorous people can be valuable.

The PolyWinnipeg group has a Facebook page that lists events and other items of interest for local poly folk. The group holds regular PolyTalks as well as social events like potlucks and games nights. There’s a high representation of queer and trans people, and events are usually free and held in queer and trans-friendly locations, says Sheng.

The Winnipeg Polyamory Discussion Group on Yahoo!Groups is devoted to discussing the emotional, social and political issues related to being involved in mature, ethical, non-monogamous relationships. Its emphasis is on the Winnipeg community, and the group is inclusive of all styles of poly, all genders and all sexual orientations.

Seeing deep, heartfelt desires materialize because we are able to express them should be something anyone can do. Whether that looks like polyamory, monogamy, or something else, the lessons from polyamory can lead us all deeper into our own personal versions of freedom.


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Eight Things I Wish I’d Known about Polyamory: Before I Tried It and Frakked It Up, by Cunning Minx

Minx also hosts the popular Polyamory Weekly podcast, which is kink-positive and pansexual, and can be found at www.polyweekly.com.

 


 

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Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino

Part advice and part interviews with polyamorous couples, this book covers several styles of non-monogamy, including polyamory, swinging and poly for single people. There’s a companion blog at www.openingup.net.

 


 

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The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

The authors dispel myths and cover all the skills necessary to maintain a successful and responsible polyamorous lifestyle.

 


 

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More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert.

Veaux also runs www.morethantwo.com, with links to many excellent resources.

 


 

First published in OutWords Magazine, Oct 2014

http://outwords.ca/2015/issue-winter-2015/queer-polyamory/


 

–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

 

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March 13, 2016 at 8:51 pm

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Tories in review: LGBTQ rights

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Looking back at the Harper Conservative’s nine years of attacks on LGBTQ rights in Canada

OVER THE PAST SIX YEARS, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has—surprisingly—become an outspoken champion of gay rights worldwide. In 2009, Harper arranged a private meeting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to urge him to drop a controversial law that would imprison homosexuals for life. In 2011, Immigration Minister John Baird not only launched a pilot program taking up the cause of gay refugees, but took it upon himself to call out an entire meeting of Commonwealth leaders, 41 of 54 of which have anti-gay laws on the books. And so on.

Yet, at the same time, rights on paper don’t always translate into lived rights. And, despite our reputation as a supposed LGBTQ leader, Canada itself is still missing important on-paper rights. Over the past nine years, our federal government’s actions when it comes to LBGTQ rights have been inconsistent—even confounding.

Here in Canada, for instance, queer youth are grossly misrepresented amongst the homeless population, accounting for 25–40 percent. Members of the federal Conservative Party have also actively blocked the advancement of trans rights at home with endless delays of Bill C-279, which seeks to give transgender people basic Charter protections. The back-and-forth doesn’t stop there: The feds cut funding to gay organizations, such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in 2012 and Pride Toronto in 2010—yet a 600-person gay Conservative party called Fabulous Blue Tent was thrown in 2011 to bring gay Conservatives together during the Party’s convention. That same weekend, the Tories passed a resolution supporting religious organizations’ refusal to perform same-sex marriages. Previously, in 2005, Harper had campaigned on the promise to repeal same-sex marriage.

And, it doesn’t stop there. Here, we examine the Conservatives sad, confusing track record:

TRANS RIGHTS
Within the Conservative Party, there are LGBTQ-supportive caucus members, but they are in the minority, despite the now-biennial Fabulous Blue Tent party. When Bill C-279—to grant transgender Canadians equal protection under the law—passed through the House of Commons, only 18 of 155 Tory MPs voted in favour. Conservative MP Rob Anders called it a “bathroom bill,” insisting its goal was to give creepy men access to women’s washrooms. All other party MPs who voted were unanimously in support of C-279.

The bill is currently sitting in the Conservative-dominated Senate, and will almost surely be killed at election time—having to retrace its process through the House again. Now more than 10 years in the making, this would be the second time the bill was forced back to square one. Yet, if passed, it will give trans people legal recourse against things such as being fired and being denied housing, and will also make sky-high rates of violence punishable as hate crimes.

HARPER TRIES TO MOVE BACKWARDS
Opposing queer rights is nothing new for Harper. Early on in 1994, he fought plans to introduce same-sex spousal benefits in Canada. In 2005, after same-sex marriage was legalized, he promised to bring legislation defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman.” When this plan was defeated shortly after his election, he decided to leave the issue alone, saying, “I don’t see reopening this question [of marriage] in the future.”

FUNDING CUTS
After more than 20 years of federal funding, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network faced cuts in 2012 because it “may have used the funds for advocacy.” After receiving a “significant portion of its funding from Ottawa” over its entire existence, the organization sought renewal of the same funding but the Public Health Agency of Canada rejected 16 of its 20 proposals.

In 2006, shortly after taking power, the Conservative Party also cut the entire budget of a program called Court Challenges, which had made public funds available for individuals launching human rights challenges in court. Used by those making challenges on the basis of sexual orientation and more, the fund had helped homosexual couples secure spousal benefits and achieve equality protection. Harper’s chief of staff from 2005-2008, Ian Brodie, used his PhD to argue the program unfairly empowered homosexuals and other minority groups. The Conservatives had killed the program in 1992 originally, only to have it revived by the Liberals. Now the Cons have resuscitated it, but with a narrowed focus on only linguistic minorities.

PROGRESS, PR, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Canada’s immigration office under Harper worked with Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees to fast-track 100 gay Iranians into Canada, saving them from possible execution. Harper also personally lobbied Uganda’s president in 2009 over a law that would imprison gay people for life. Canada even gave $200,000 to Ugandan groups to fight the law. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has made repeated international public statements condemning countries that criminalize homosexuality, and during the 2014 Olympics Baird and Harper spoke out against the Russian “gay propaganda” law that makes it illegal for anyone to distribute gay rights materials.

Yet, speaking against the criminalization of LGBTQ people is not the same as active support. In regards to Russia in particular, Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid, who chairs the Commons’ subcommittee on international human rights, said it’s an issue of freedom of speech. Saskatchewan Conservative backbencher Maurice Vellacott said he believes LGBTQ folks should have basic protections, but that he wouldn’t want his kids exposed to “homosexual propaganda.” These attitudes offer insight into the mixed messages of the Conservative Party when it comes to queer rights. Whatever its motives are for this dissonance, the fact remains there’s a lot of work to be done in this country before queer liberation becomes a reality.

 

First published in Sept/Oct 2015 issue of This Magazine

https://this.org/2015/09/25/tories-in-review-lgbtq-rights/

 

 

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March 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm

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Questionable Sex Ed: What’s being taught in Manitoba’s schools

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-december-january-2014-15/questionable-sex-ed/

Promoting abstinence in sex education is what Candace Maxymowich, a Winnipeg public school board trustee candidate, did during her campaign, before she lost by a wide margin in October’s election. But her discussion on infusing the value of Christian-style abstinence into education begs the question: what are kids learning in sex ed in Winnipeg’s schools, and are they learning anything about same-sex and trans issues?

Among all of Winnipeg’s school divisions—some more progressive when it comes to sex ed than others—curriculum is mandated by the province. The physical education and health curriculum are the sections that apply to sex ed. The province’s website details a framework on how schools are to deal with “potentially sensitive content,” of which sex ed is a part.

Requiring a planning process that includes parental involvement, school divisions make independent decisions about sex ed, including content, how it is taught, how it’s graded and what resources are used to teach it. Not teaching it at all is an option, as the framework gives school divisions the power to decide how much depth and breadth to give the topic. There is also an opt-out for parents who’d like their children to learn the subject by another means if they disagree with what the school’s doing.

Winnipeg’s schools are many, and range from Dakota Collegiate, which is hosting an upcoming national gay-straight alliance conference in May, to others that have faced controversies over Bill 18 and over transgender students.

When it comes to sex education, what is being taught varies widely as well.

“It’s division-to-division on what kind of language they use,” says Roselle Paulsen, program director at Winnipeg’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC). She was consulted on the health curriculum when it was created and published in 2000. “There are different approaches to how people interpret the student learning outcomes. So if you see a word like ‘diversity,’ or those kinds of things, people are going to interpret them differently.”

Paulsen points to a couple of examples in the curriculum. The first, a learning outcome for Grade 7, tells teachers to “identify effects of social influences on sexuality and gender roles.” Topics like violence against women, media ads, gender equity and culture are generally covered under this topic, Paulsen says. But “Somebody who wants to take more latitude could say that when we talk about gender roles we could delve much more deeply into things like gender identity and social morays.”

It’s up to the interpretation of the school divisions. Another example is in grade five where the curriculum talks about celebrating all kinds of families—again open to interpretation. By Grade 9, sexual orientation is named explicitly. Since it’s included, Paulsen says there should be no reason for schools not to talk about same-sex issues within the context of sex ed, although some don’t. “The frustration with this sort of document, is on the one hand, sexuality education within the health curriculum is mandated. On the other hand, the department says, but each division in the province can determine, based on their own community needs, the depth and breadth of what they provide. That’s the problem.”

Vycki Atallah has also seen a wide variation between what is taught in sex ed. As co-ordinator of Klinic Community Health Centre’s Teen Talk program, she’s invited into schools to give sex ed talks when schools want more. “It can really look a lot different in different schools and communities. For some schools and communities, we’re really welcome, and come in, and some classes get multiple workshops from us; and other schools and school divisions simply don’t book us; don’t extend an invitation for us to come into their school.”

Teen Talk approaches sex ed in line with the provincial curriculum, but from an anti-oppressive standpoint, which includes education about healthy relationships, and the range of genders and sexuality. Their workshops make it clear that all types of couples are valued on an equal level and that body parts can belong to people of any gender, says Atallah.

She says Seven Oaks School Division and Winnipeg One are among the most progressive on these fronts she’s worked with.

Anastasia Chipelski, who works with service providers who talk to teens about sex in her capacity as health educator at Nine Circles Community Health Centre, says she doesn’t think the majority of teens are learning their sex education in schools anyway. The teens her clients are in contact with are way ahead of any adults who are teaching them about sex. “Who knows where the teens are learning it from?” she says. “They’re not learning it in schools.” One guess she has is they’re getting information from well-informed peers.

Perhaps one piece of the puzzle is that the curriculum schools are teaching needs updating, says Paulsen. “Everybody agrees that it [does],” she says. “Things have changed a lot.”

“We have a spectrum of how people identify and their attractions, and all of those kinds of things.
If we’re going to be inclusive and comprehensive and provide a safe space for all students, then it is time to be realistic and pragmatic, and let’s not pretend that this isn’t an issue.”

Published in OutWords Magazine, Dec 2014


–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Boy Meets Girl a heartbreaking and entertaining romantic trans comedy

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-octobernovember-2014/home-grown-reel-pride/

Watch this movie. Funny and engaging, Boy Meets Girl sees 21-year-old Ricky and her best friend Robbie in small town Kentucky, where they grew up.

Sexual tensions play out alongside the tensions of trans life in this film that reveals small-town relationships as nuanced rather than stereotyped. Played by trans woman Michelle Hendley, the story centres on Ricky’s romantic life and the complex web of relationships she negotiates.

Rich flashbacks of the past are by turns heartbreaking and entertaining. This story is not about Ricky’s transition, but her whole life, and by virtue of that, an entire town.

Her gender history is revealed early on as she develops a relationship with her first lesbian object of affection, Francesca, who is engaged to be married to a local marine.

The situations Ricky faces display her incredible inner strength, built up over a lifetime of experience. She defends herself when necessary with matter-of-fact fierce wit. The behaviours she faces and the emotions she feels will be recognizable to most trans people. Confident and wise, she is held by the town around her.

This 99-minute film from director Eric Shaeffer will leave you connected in its sweet depth.

Published in OutWords Magazine, Oct/Nov 2014

http://issuu.com/outwords/docs/outwords_213_october_2014 page 27

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living and working in Vancouver, B.C.

Written by larkinschmiedl

October 11, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Transgender and Incarcerated: How do our jails treat some of the most vulnerable prisoners?

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http://issuu.com/outwords/docs/outwords_210_may-june_2014 – pages 8-10

Transgender prisoners – particularly women – often face harsh situations in Canada’s jails. Without documentation or not having medically transitioned, offenders may face difficult questions when entering the prison system, not the least of which is what their gender is. Those who are non-operative or pre-operative are, by standard practice, sent to the prison that matches their sexed genitalia, said a spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. This is done regardless of how long they have lived as their identified gender.

A famous 2001 Canadian case saw Synthia Kavanagh, a 41-year-old trans woman who had begun hormone therapy and lived as female since she was a teen, placed in a men’s prison and given restricted hormone therapy. This resulted in a reversal of the physical changes hormones had provided her. After her requests for gender-reassignment surgery (GRS) were repeatedly denied, Kavanagh attempted to slice off her genitalia out of desperation.

Kavanagh filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and eventually won her case in 2001. She received surgery at a cost of $14,000 and was then moved to a women’s prison. This followed several years in segregation after alleged sexual assault and harassment at the hands of male inmates. Kavanagh’s case illustrates all too well some of the hardships trans women face in Canada’s prison system.

“They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs they still have.”

The case in Manitoba

In Manitoba, the Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the provision of services. The Commission’s website states, “Systemic discrimination is a form of discrimination that is often not intended. It takes place when a policy or practice that seems neutral has a greater negative effect on some people based on their protected characteristic.”

Failure to reasonably accommodate a special need that is based on a protected characteristic is also prohibited in Manitoba. The Code has special status over all other laws in the Province of Manitoba.

Factors like self-identification, gender on official ID and any file history about past placements is taken into consideration before placing a transgendered prisoner, said the spokesperson for Manitoba Justice. “Placements also consider the individual’s health and safety and any security concerns that could result. As I understand it, a transgender inmate in a correctional facility would likely be placed in an area with either a smaller population of inmates (i.e. not a dorm-style arrangement), or in other areas better suited to protect his or her safety.”

The spokesperson said Manitoba Corrections has effectively managed trans offenders in the past and isn’t aware of any significant incidents. Of a total inmate population of around 2,600, they estimate that there may be four to six transgender inmates in the provincial system at any time. The spokesperson said trans inmates have access to hormones if they have been taking them before coming in. The official was unable to say whether any pre-operative/non-operative trans women have ever been placed in a women’s prison in Manitoba.

Manitoba Corrections does not have policies specific to transgender inmates.

The case for transgender inmates the same across Canada

In addition to provincial facilities, there are three federal penitentiaries in Manitoba. Correctional Service Canada’s regional communications manager for the Prairies, Jeff Campbell said in an e-mail interview, “Pre-operative male to female offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in men’s institutions and pre-operative female to male offenders with gender identity disorder shall be held in women’s institutions.” For all placement decisions, individual assessments are done to ensure those offenders diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) have their needs for safety and privacy accommodated, Campbell said. This means that without genital surgery, an offender would be placed in a prison that corresponds with their physical sex, but possibly not with their emotional and psychological well-being.

In order for an inmate to be diagnosed with GID and access trans-specific medical care, they must see a psychiatrist who is a recognized expert in the area. This mirrors the process many trans people outside prison must follow to access healthcare. The process for inmates happens if and when such a psychiatrist is available, according to Correctional Service Canada policy. The policy states inmates with GID diagnosis are the ones who can initiate or continue hormone therapy.

The policy also says, “Sex reassignment surgery shall be considered during incarceration only when: a recognized gender identity specialist has confirmed that the offender has satisfied the real-life test.” The real-life test refers to living full-time as one’s identified gender for a year in order to qualify for surgery. For inmates, the real-life test must have been completed prior to incarceration. If they are eligible for surgery, Correctional Service Canada foots the bill. This policy amendment was enacted following Kavanagh’s human rights victory.

Dealing with misidentification

One source OutWords spoke to has seen some of the effects of these policies on the ground. In a telephone interview, an employee of federal corrections described some of the ways trans women are treated in male penitentiaries and how some of them cope. “They’re mixed in with the general population, and they’re assigned based on whatever sex organs they still have,” the source said. “Even if they’ve had breast augmentation and have been living fully as female and on hormones.” Others could care less if they’re in with the males, and “[those ones] only live as female part-time or by choice.”

“But there are a couple in particular who live fully as female and identify as female and we call them by their female names… Most of them are forced to work the streets when they’re out, and then they come in, and if they really want to affect change it’s pretty hard, because they’re kind of used as females within the prison,” said the source. “In some ways for some of them it gives them a lot of power in the prison, because they have something to barter with. But for others who are sincerely wanting to change, and [who] live their lives as females socially, it’s an added struggle for them. I think it’s kind of shameful.” The source described the situation as psychologically damaging and quite bad. “But I don’t know what the other solution is either.”

Prisonjustice.ca, an activist organization for trans prisoners, notes the connection between criminal activity, poverty and the isolation and stigmatization many trans people face. Incarceration rates within trans communities are disproportionate, and this is linked to the vulnerability of the trans population.

Moving forward

The federal employee said Manitoba Corrections is looking at work done by the Winnipeg police to help plan an expansion for its own diversity programs. “We’re also doing it [federally], because we work with a diversity committee, and we’re looking to bring in speakers and stuff from related organizations that have been successful in doing diversity training with their staff.”

A guide put together by Joshua Mira Goldberg for the Justice Institute of British Columbia aims to provide criminal justice personnel with the information necessary to respond appropriately to trans people in the criminal justice system. It suggests a case-by-case approach to placing trans prisoners. “In some cases, it may be appropriate to place a prisoner according to their identity (e.g., placing a trans woman in a women’s facility). In some locations, it may be possible for trans prisoners to be housed together in a special unit. In some instances, a trans prisoner may request placement in general population or protective custody… There needs to be a framework to guide the assessment.”

Australia’s model is a three-tiered policy that prioritizes prisoner safety. First, it is asked which facility would be safest for the prisoner. Then, the prisoner’s general appearance and what gender they live as are considered. The last consideration is physiology and genital status.

An international academic study that looked at transsexuals within prison systems in North America, Europe and Australia found that only 29 of 64 correctional institutions said they would maintain existing hormone therapy if it had been prescribed prior to imprisonment. Sixty-two of 64 facilities said all inmates must wear the clothing appropriate to the institution regardless of the inmate’s gender identity. And only 40 per cent of correctional services had policies addressing issues like hormone treatment.

Published in OutWords Magazine, May/June 2014

–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.

Writing trans-genres

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http://outwords.ca/2014/issue-april-2014/writing-trans-genres/

Because transgender arts and literature are not often understood on their own terms, and because when trans work is reviewed, it’s often viewed through stereotypical lenses, poet and University of Winnipeg assistant professor Trish Salah decided to organize Writing Trans Genres. Part academic conference and part performance cabaret, the three-day event at the University of Winnipeg will include panels, workshops, keynote speakers and presentations of papers on May 22 to 24.

“What I’m interested in doing is creating a space for trans people to talk about how we understand our work,” said Salah, author of two books. “Interest in trans figures frequently translates to an interest in trans figures produced by non-trans people, and those representations – you know, I can think of exceptions that are quite good, but the majority tend to be quite stereotypical and quite either condescending or fetishizing, or just simplistic.”

Although the conference is not trans-exclusive, it centres on trans authors, performers and artists as the people who are the most knowledgeable about their own work. That sounds straightforward, but self-representation flies in the face of a long history of misrepresentation. 

“I figured the best way to start that conversation was to get large numbers of trans writers together.”

Salah hopes the conference will build an understanding of how to read trans writing in ways that are attentive to the specifics of different people’s experiences. She also hopes some active networks of trans, two-spirit and genderqueer writers and critics will emerge.

And non-academics are welcome. The keynotes and daytime readings will be free and open to the public, and parts of the conference will be streamed online and digitally archived for later public use. To attend the entire conference, fees range from $10 for unwaged attendees, to $120 for those employed full-time. Registration is open until April 15.

Keynote speaker Rachel Pollack will talk about what it means for trans people to make literature for one another, rather than to explain the trans experience to non-trans people. Another keynote will address ways of thinking about indigenous approaches to gender and sexuality.

“We will be having conversations specifically around intersectionality and the ways in which racialized linguistic and cultural identities interact with sex and gender identities in shaping people’s literary production,” said Salah.

And the ways the queer and trans communities relate will also be a topic of conversation. “Certainly there are trans folks and trans artists who participate within queer contexts, but there’s actually a much broader segment of the trans community that probably doesn’t, so that will also be reflected in the kind of art we make, the kind of writing we do,” Salah said.

The conference’s call for papers asks, “Are there unknown histories of trans literary production?” and “What genres and figures have been important for two-spirit, genderqueer, trans-identified writers and writers with transsexual histories?”

“It’s often assumed trans literature is just an expression of identity, or a simplistic response to oppression,” said Salah. “And certainly we do respond to oppression and we do talk about our experience and the difference of trans lives from cis lives, but there’s a lot more complexity to what’s being produced than that.”

Inspired by trans film and arts festivals in Toronto in the late ‘90s, and by historic conferences like Women and Words, which brought women writers together to debate and define women’s literature, Writing Trans Genres aims to build a public cultural space for trans people.

“I’m hoping that we can bring a similar spirit to imagining what trans folks’ literature looks like,” Salah said. 

Check out the details at www.writingtransgenres.com.

Published in OutWords Magazine, April 2014

– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially where it involves other trans folks.

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