Vancouver Sun

December 12, 2000

Woman felt humiliated by Rape Relief

Transgendered woman's rejection as a volunteer led to human rights complaint

Scott Simpson
Vancouver Sun

Kimberly Nixon (foreground) and lawyer barbara findlayA transgenderde woman felt humiliated and suicidal after she was ejected from a volunteer training course offered by the Vancouver Rape Relief Society, a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was told Monday.

Kimberly Nixon told the tribunal she has been living as a woman for 19 years and has experienced almost constant discrimination and rejection that make it difficult to find employment, make friends and establish relationships with men.

She said she was nervous about taking the volunteer training course because of her background, but never imagined the brusque treatment she would receive from course leaders.

Nixon signed on for the Rape Relief training program in 1995 after recovering from an unhealthy relationship with a man who subjected her to emotional and physical abuse.

She told the tribunal her recovery was due to a support group organized by Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS). She said the BWSS program had a powerful and positive effect on her life, and she felt her background and experiences would make her a capable volunteer worker.

She considered volunteering with BWSS, but was told she had to wait a year after graduating from her support group, so she signed on instead for a course offered by Rape Relief.

But Nixon said she was called aside during a coffee break at the first Rape Relief training session and subjected to what she felt was insensitive questioning, then told she was not welcome to continue the training.

"She said to me, when did you have your operation. I felt it was really inappropriate to be talking about genitals. I said 'Oh, do you mean my gender reassignment surgery?' Nixon recalled.

Nixon said she was told Rape Relief restricts its volunteer counsellor membership only to women who have the experience of being treated as female since birth, and by that criterion she was not qualified.

"She said men are not allowed in the group. I said I am not a man. She said gay men are not allowed in the group. I said I am not a gay man.

"I was feeling really hurt and humiliated. I told her what she was doing was hateful, hurtful and discriminatory"

Under questioning from her legal counsel, barbara findlay, Nixon said she has considered herself female since birth and said she has always imagined herself as the female partner in a relationship with a man.

Nixon said she insisted on getting the opinions of two other training leaders before leaving and was told the same thing.

She said she could not understand why the women, all of whom told her they were lesbians, could not accept her as a woman.

She said she left, distraught, and in tears, feeling as helpless as she had in her relationship, and considering suicide the best remedy.

"All I could think of was the Lions Gate Bridge," she said.

Instead, she was able to reach some friends by telephone and talked out her feelings to the point that she got up the next day and filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.

Rape Relief went to court in an attempt to have the case thrown out, arguing that protections set out in the province's human rights code did not cover discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

That argument was rejected in June by in the B.C. Supreme Court, which ordered that Nixon's complaint proceed to the Human Rights Tribunal.

Lawyer Victoria Gray, representing Rape Relief, said it is the society's policy that volunteer peer counsellors "have the lifelong experience of being treated as female."

She said the society is justified in maintaining this requirement because women who are victims of rape are characteristically mistrustful of men.

Rape Relief volunteers provide victims of male violence with services that can be intimate, such as accompanying victims, at hospital and being present during internal examinations.

The society has offered Nixon other positions, such as a fundraiser, in an attempt to resolve the conflict without going to a tribunal.

Gray said Rape Relief's rejection of Nixon could not be construed as discriminatory because 'the counselling position sought by Nixon was an unpaid volunteer position, not regular employment.

Suzanne Jay, spokeswoman for Rape Relief, said that while the society regrets the hurt suffered by Nixon, it continues to believe its volunteer policies are sound and defensible on the grounds that they guarantee the best possible care for women.

The B.C. Human Rights Commission, however, is supporting Nixon's position that there was discrimination.

In a submission to the tribunal on behalf of deputy Chief Commissioner Harinder Mahil, commission counsel Deirdre Rice rejected Rape Relief's contention that this case would threaten the society's ability to continue as a women-only organization.

Rice said the commission is "deeply sensitive to the need for Rape Relief to screen its workers so that only those who are properly qualified and trained are available to meet the needs of the women in crisis who come to that organization for help."

But she added that under the Human Rights Code, Rape Relief "cannot prevent a particular type of woman from participating, not because she is individually unsuited to doing so, but instead on the basis of stereotypical biases and assumptions."

Rice said it is Mahil's position that Rape Relief could have denied Nixon a volunteer training position in the normal way - by using a screening process that was respectful of her dignity and equality.

Rice noted there have been four previous rulings in B.C., one in court and three by the tribunal, in which transsexual women were supported in complaints of discrimination on the basis of being transgendered.

The commission, is recommending the tribunal take several remedies on behalf of Nixon, including an order that Rape Relief conduct an "unlearning transphobia workshop for all staff, collective members and volunteers, within two months of the tribunal's order, and repeated in, six months."

Nixon is seeking similar remedies, including $10,000, from Rape Relief.