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February 22, 2001

B.C. rights case asks: What is a woman?

Volunteer expelled as she had been a he

Mark Hume
National Post

Nick Didlick, National Post
Transsexual Kimberly Nixon has filed a human rights complaint against the Rape Relief Society after it said she could not counsel rape victims because she was not born a woman.

VANCOUVER - A women-only rape counselling society told a British Columbia human rights tribunal yesterday that it has the right to set its own "political" definition of who is a woman and who is not.

Christine Boyle, the University of British Columbia law professor who is representing the Vancouver Rape Relief Society against a human rights complaint, said the society's definition of a woman is "not about genitals."

Ms. Boyle argued that the society did not violate Kimberly Nixon's rights when it turned down her application to become a volunteer rape counsellor because she was once a man.

Ms. Nixon, a former male airline pilot who had a sex-change operation in 1990, complained to the human rights commission after being turned down by the society.

"We have not heard the legal test of what a woman is," Ms. Boyle said. "Is it medical? Or some sort of legal documentation?

"The issue of Ms. Nixon's womanhood is a delicate and complex question ... [and] we've had no legal definition or argument of what a woman is. Is it sex, or gender, or both?"

Lacking a legal definition, she argued that Rape Relief is entitled to have a "political understanding" of what it is that makes a woman.

The rights commission is supporting Ms. Nixon's complaint.

Ms. Nixon filed her complaint after the Rape Relief Society asked her to leave a session for volunteers who were training to counsel women who had been raped.

Rape Relief, which was founded in 1973, does not accept men as volunteers or members, nor does it accept women who are either anti-abortion or "not dedicated to pursuing equality."

When Ms. Nixon showed up at a training group in 1995, she was the first transsexual to apply. Three Rape Relief members decided on the spot to add another category to the banned list: transsexuals.

Ms. Boyle said the decision was justifiable because of Ms. Nixon's "life experience."

She said that while Ms. Nixon, 43, had managed to change her biological sex through surgery, she had not changed the fact that for the first 29 years of her life she was a man. It is that experience that disqualified her as a volunteer counsellor, she argued.

Rape Relief's political belief, Ms. Boyle said, is that "women's oppression is a social order in which men by birth rule women," and that women need to organize themselves to assist women who suffer male violence.

Ms. Nixon could not counsel rape victims, Ms. Boyle said, because victims "may feel that someone who lived as a man is not a peer on the issue of male oppression; and ... might have a prurient interest in confidences respecting sexual/gendered assaults."

Ms. Nixon is seeking $10,000 in damages and an order for Rape Relief to offer transsexual sensitivity training.

The human rights commission has argued that Rape Relief "cannot prevent a particular type of woman from participating."

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