Globe and Mail

Check one: male, female or gender gifted

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, November 2, 1999

Pity the poor YMCA. Christian in the most ecumenical sense of the word, the Y is among the most inclusive, community-minded civic institutions on the face of the Earth. The Y is not the sort of outfit that you think would need scrutiny from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. You would be wrong.

A couple of years ago, a citizen by the name of Michelle Josef applied for a female membership at Toronto's West End Y. She insisted on using the women's changing room. Just one catch: Although Ms. Joseph self-identifies as a woman, she is, anatomically speaking, a man. Until quite recently, her name was Bohdan Hluszko.

"I identify as a woman. I live as a woman. I am a woman," declares the statuesque green-eyed redhead. "It would be totally inappropriate for me to use the men's change room."

The Y thought about it. As much as it sympathized with Ms. Josef, it had its many anatomically female members to consider, some of whom are young girls. It decided they would be very uncomfortable sharing their facilities with Ms. Josef, and said no. It offered Ms. Josef a male membership, instead, until such time as her male member is removed by sex-change surgery.

"She wants all the rights of the person she's changing to," explains a polite official from the Y. "We respect that. But until she's made the change fully, the women's locker room is not the place she should be."

Not satisfied with this answer, Ms. Josef took her case to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It has been studying the situation for nearly two years now, during which time it has held lengthy discussions with both parties. All hope that a compromise can be reached, though it's difficult to imagine what that might be.

If this were a mere washroom case, instead of a more complex locker-room case, it would be a slam-dunk for Michelle. A few months ago, British Columbia's Human Rights Tribunal ruled that anyone who says she's a woman has the right to use women's washrooms. It ordered a gay bar to fork over $2,000 to a transsexual patron for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect after she was kicked out of the ladies'. There are no precedents yet for locker rooms. Human-rights commissions in both Ontario and British Columbia have become newly obsessed with the rights and claims of the transgendered. Why is this? Perhaps the people who work at these bodies are just fascinated by what goes on in washrooms. Or maybe, with sexism and racism on the wane, they're simply running out of other injustices to remedy.

Transgendered people have as much right as anyone else to fair treatment. And no doubt some of them aren't treated all that well. But it's prudent to keep their woes in proportion. By the most generous estimates, they make up no more than 0.002 per cent of Canada's adult population.

Nonetheless, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has declared the oppression of the transgendered to be a major issue that deserves a massive public-education campaign. Last week, it released a detailed discussion paper on the subject that is full of challenges to traditional assumptions. For example, it says the idea that all babies are born either male or female is "one of the great myths of our culture." The writer thinks this myth is deplorable, perhaps because it's only 99.995 per cent true.

Among the questions raised by the human-rights commission are these. Should we add "gender identity" to the long, long list of prohibited grounds for discrimination? Should there be a third neutral option after M and F on forms that ask you to check one? Should the pejorative term "gender dysphoria" be replaced with a more liberating term, such as "gender gifted"? How can the general public be sensitized to the differences among transsexuals, cross-dressers, intersexed individuals, drag queens, drag kings, and female impersonators? How do we eradicate the presumption of "gender essentialism," which perpetuates the doctrine of two sexes? And so on.

One senses that a decade's worth of hard work lies ahead for enterprising human-rights bureaucrats. Meantime, Ms. Josef fights bravely on. She works in the music business and, before she started her hormone treatments, she was a drummer with Prairie Oyster, a successful country-music band. When she started to pluck her eyebrows, the band cited creative differences, and let her go. She smelled discrimination, and got a tidy settlement. Now, as well as taking the Y to the Human Rights Commission, she's taking the Ontario government to court because it won't pay for sex-change surgery any more. She argues that's a violation of her human rights and the Canada Health Act. "It's very inhuman treatment to leave someone dangling, so to speak," she told me.


E-mail: mwente@globeandmail.ca

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