Edmonton Sun

December 17, 2000

Should Transsexual Counsel Rape Victims?

by Mindelle Jacobs
Edmonton Sun

Kimberly Nixon, the transsexual who wanted a volunteer counselling job with a Vancouver rape crisis centre - much to the shelter's horror - believes she's a victim.

In 1995, five years after the former bush pilot had certain body parts lopped off in order to become a woman, Nixon attempted to join the Vancouver Rape Relief Society.

Staff took one look at Nixon when she showed up for training, figured she wasn't quite what she seemed and told her she wasn't welcome.

Given our increasingly litigious society, Nixon went crying to the B.C. Human Rights Commission which referred her case to a tribunal for a hearing.

As far as she's concerned, she can make a valuable contribution to the Vancouver centre and the fact she's a transsexual shouldn't matter.

"I keep telling you I am a woman and I have always been a woman but people don't hear that," she told the tribunal Tuesday. "I am not a man."

While she may be physically and emotionally comfortable in her new skin, rape victims may not be so ready to open up to a counsellor "who looks like a man wearing a woman's dress," as the rape centre puts it.

We mustn't forget who the real victims are here - the women getting counselling.

If Nixon were accepted as a volunteer, she wouldn't just be manning (oops) the crisis lines.

The Vancouver facility is a combined 24-hour rape crisis centre and battered women's shelter.

The duties of volunteers range from giving phone advice and greeting beaten women at the door to face-to-face counselling with rape victims.

Can women this traumatized feel comfortable falling into the caring arms of someone who spent most of her life as a man? I don't know.

Absolutely not, says the Vancouver centre.

"We're a feminist organization. We formed on the basis of women's shared experience of violence," says spokesman Suzanne Jay.

"(Nixon's) process of becoming a woman is very different from what you and I went through."

Nixon may have all the compassion in the world, Jay says, but she can't possibly know how victimized women really feel.

The centre offered Nixon the chance to help out with fund-raising instead but she refused, says Jay.

So now it's come to this. Nixon is demanding $10,000 in compensation and wants the centre's staff to take part in a seminar on transgender issues.

Curiously enough, on the conservative Prairies, there is no ban on hiring men (or transsexuals) for staff or volunteer positions.

Six out of the 80-odd volunteers at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton are men and the facility has had transgendered volunteers in the past.

"To us, feminism means equality," says executive-director Karen Smith. "It's the best person for the job. It's not gender-based."

About 20% of the centre's clients are male victims of sexual assault so it only makes sense to have male counsellors, she says.

"Sexual assault happens to anyone so anyone can do this work."

In Calgary, the philosophy is the same. There are a handful of male volunteers working the phone lines and they always give women victims the choice to switch to a female counsellor.

Only one in about 300 callers asks to talk to a woman, says Danielle Aubry, of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse.

"There are lots of other things that are more important than gender."

As for Nixon, she'll likely win her discrimination case. But if she ever does decide to work as a rape counsellor, the victims will be the ultimate arbiters of her fate.

She can stomp up and down in her over-sized high heels insisting she's a woman all she wants but some rape victims just might not buy it.

Copyright 2000, Canoe Limited Partnership.