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Transgender women face high rates of physical, sexual and fatal violence

A version of this commentary appeared in the Toronto Star, the Huffington Post and Our Windsor

Earlier this month, Sophie Labelle, a Montreal-based, internationally renowned transgender author and activist was subject to a violent cyber-attack, including death threats and hate speech.  Most chillingly, the attackers not only temporarily destroyed her popular website, but also published personal details — including her home address. Sophie is now in hiding.

Bill C-16, a bill designed to protect gender identity and gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code, explicitly addresses the violence that Sophie most recently experienced. If the Bill were made law, Sophie’s attackers could face additional sanctions for hate speech.

Indeed, Bill C-16 helps to redress incomplete protections for some of the most vulnerable women in Canadian society today: transgender women, who face unconscionably high rates of physical, sexual and fatal violence.

For over a decade now, however, legislation aiming to protect transgender rights has stalled.  Numerous lives have continued to be tragically impacted by discrimination, harassment and violence in the meantime.

Much of this stalling has occurred in the Senate where a small but vocal minority of Senators has successfully been able to prevent the Bill from moving forward.  A 3rd reading for the bill will take place in the Senate this week.

There have been other detractors.  Most recently, Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) and Pour les droits des femmes du Québec (PDFQ) claimed during a Senate Committee hearing on the issue that the protections for transgender people in Bill C-16 pose a threat to feminism and female-only spaces.

This claim garnered national headlines.  But it proved to be spurious.

In the immediate aftermath of the testimony, Canadian feminists moved quickly to distance themselves from such exclusionary views.  On May 17th we published an open letter entitled, “Canadian Feminists Support Bill C-16 / Féministes canadiens pour la loi C-16,” on iPetitions. The petition argued that the bill “is deeply needed and long overdue” especially given the fact that “transgender women are more likely to face poverty, homelessness, barriers to education and violence than are cisgender (non-transgender) women.”

In just one day it gained over 1000 supporters. Signatories include people from women’s shelters, churches and Women’s Studies programs in universities across the country.

On the same day, this petition was joined by a strong statement of support for Bill C-16 from eight organizational signatories, including Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women; Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses; Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, Ryerson University; Women’s Health in Women’s Hands; Canadian Women’s Foundation; YWCA Canada; Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres. The message was clear, and in stark contrast to VRR and PDFQ: trans women are women. 

As the signatories wrote, “Bill C-16 will bolster efforts to ensure sexual violence support services are available to all survivors of violence across Canada.” They went on to affirm the importance of equity and safety for trans, two-spirit and gender diverse people.

The immediate and vocal response from feminists across the country who were anxious to counter the testimony given at the Senate against the Bill makes it clear that human rights are at the very heart of contemporary Canadian feminism.  Feminism is more rich and diverse than it has ever been before.  A new generation of young people are committed to tackling oppression as an intersectional project of resistance.

There is wide-ranging support for trans rights in Canada that goes all the way up to the Prime Minister’s office.

On International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, Prime Minister Trudeau declared, “Today — and every day — I join Canadians to support gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation rights for people in Canada and around the world, and to challenge stigma, violence and prejudices wherever they occur.”

Bill C-16 cements such sentiments and good wishes into reality. A large majority of the members of Parliament also support this recognition of trans rights.

It is now time for our Senators to decide if they too will protect gender identity and gender expression. These measures are needed not only by those who are transgender, but also by less-understood non-binary and gender fluid individuals.

As the Senate meets to vote on the third reading of this historic legislation, we urge them to remember that gender diverse people of all ages, from children to seniors, should be embraced as equals in this country, with the full protection of the law.


Kimberley Ens Manning is an expert with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute and Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University. In her capacity as a founding Board Member of Gender Creative Kids Canada (GCKC), Dr. Manning frequently gives public presentations on transgender children and their families.

Dr. Julie Temple Newhook is an Instructor of Gender Studies and Professional Associate with the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University.  In 2014, she founded the national and local peer support groups, Canadian Parents of Trans & Gender Diverse Kids/Parents canadiens d’enfants trans and Parents of Trans & Gender Diverse Kids – Newfoundland & Labrador.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.