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December 19, 2000

Centre right to reject transsexual, Rebick says

Human rights tribunal: Case goes to 'heart of what the women's movement is'

Ian Bailey
National Post

Chris Bolin, National Post
JUDY REBICK: "The challenge is, 'who is a woman?' "

VANCOUVER - A centre for sex-assault victims was right to reject a transgendered woman as a volunteer, says Judy Rebick, one of Canada's leading feminists.

"The issue at stake is whether a women's group has the right to decide who its members are," she said yesterday in an interview after testifying at a hearing of a British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.

Kimberley Nixon, who has undergone surgery and has been living as a woman for about 20 years, volunteered in 1995 to be a crisis counsellor with the Vancouver Rape Relief Society. A centre co-ordinator asked her to leave.

Ms. Rebick, a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and a CBC Newsworld host, testified yesterday at the tribunal, which was ordered to deal with Ms. Nixon's complaints about her treatment. Ms. Rebick provided the tribunal with a straightforward account of the history of the women's movement, talking about how lesbians, women of colour and others found their own places within the movement.

Outside the hearing room, however, she was far more outspoken on the problem transgendered women present for the feminist movement: "The challenge is, 'who is a woman?' -- which we're just beginning to deal with," said Ms. Rebick, 55. "What makes this tense is there's no question that transgendered people suffer from discrimination, they suffer a great deal. So, of course, [in] your heart as a feminist you want to be on their side in every fight but you can't be because there is a conflict of rights.

"It goes to the very heart of what the women's movement is and what feminism is. It's a very important discussion and a difficult one."

Ms. Rebick, who is writing a history of the women's movement in Canada since the 1960s, acknowledged the irony of her stand.

"I have a reputation of always being on the side of the most oppressed women, but here the question is, 'who is a woman?' It's a different kind of question."

Ms. Nixon is seeking $10,000 from the centre and wants it used to establish a program to tutor staff and volunteers on the needs of transgendered people.

Lee Lakeman of Vancouver Rape Relief agreed.

"Kim Nixon lived as a man for 30 years," Ms. Lakeman said in an interview. "If Kim Nixon lives until 60 as a woman, I'd be interested in reopening the question of whether he can be a Rape Relief volunteer.

"But what I'm stuck with is that he's lived more than half of his life, and all of his childhood, as a man. Until that's not a question, I don't see any debate here."

The Vancouver Rape Relief Society, founded in 1973, is one of Canada's first women-run organizations for female victims of physical and sexual assault. Twenty-eight volunteer counsellors and political activists help women who go to an old three-storey house in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

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