Is a woman a woman because she defines herself as a woman, or because she was born and raised as a woman? This pivotal issue, centered on the definition of a "woman" became the subject of an intense controversy within the Canadian women's movement. And the controversy occurred in connection with the struggle for the rights of transgender women - or men who have changed their sex to that of a woman.
Kimberly Nixon is a male-to-female transsexual whose volunteer peer counseling work at the Vancouver Rape Relief Society was terminated. The organization decided that since she had not been raised as a female she could not fully understand women's oppression, and therefore could not work at a feminist, woman-only service. Nixon had been living as a woman for 16 years and had undergone surgery five years prior to this incident.
Many women's organizations took opposing sides. And both sides claimed they were standing up for "women only" spaces, a hard won concept emanating from the earlier days of the women's movement.
The case led to some interesting discussion of issues among the women-serving and victim-serving communities in British Columbia. Vancouver Rape Relief, a pioneer women's organization in Canada, serving victims of sexual assault, argued that women have to have a life-long experience of being a woman in order to understand women's oppression and women's needs.
The argument was taken one step further by at least one representative of the organization, who asserted, "If the situation had involved a female-to-male transsexual, it would have been different, because the individual would have that shared life experience with women." One is led to question the logic of such an argument, which would have people currently identifying and presenting as men, providing services to women victims in an all-women organization.
Similarly, Rape Relief argues on its web site that "...sexism, racism and classism are oppressions experienced from birth, and in that way differ from other disadvantages, such as those relating to disability and sexual orientation." Rape Relief appears to be arguing that a person born with a disability can effectively understand and serve others with disabilities, but that a person who acquires a disability later in life cannot.
The implications of such an argument are enormous, particularly when one considers the intersectionality of oppressions which many individuals and organizations are now struggling to address. Can only the poor serve the poor? Can middle class professionals effectively serve only other members of the middle class? How early in one's life does one have to experience an oppression in order to be able to help others address its impact? Can victim service workers who have never experienced a serious crime be effective in supporting victims?
Such categorizations of people's lives can only serve to divide the global movement against oppression at a time when we need to be finding common ways to work together, not excluding those whose 'life experiences' do not match our own.
However, the rights of transgender women received a boost when the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal decided that Nixon was indeed a woman, and that by terminating her volunteer work because she wasn't born and raised as a woman, Vancouver Rape Relief had discriminated against her. She was awarded $7,500, for "injury to dignity" - the highest human rights tribunal award ever in British Columbia.
The 2002 British Columbia (BC) Human Rights Commission news release stated: "The BC Human Rights Commission's deputy chief commissioner, Harinder Mahil...did not challenge the right of the agency to offer services and volunteer opportunities to women only. However, he did question the
agency's definition of women, which was not inclusive of transsexual women."
Mahil went on to say, "In order to promote equality as outlined in the (Human Rights) code, it is essential that differences are not only accommodated between groups in society, but also within groups, including women and other disadvantaged groups...Nixon was disqualified for a volunteer opportunity, not because of her skills or abilities, but because she is transsexual. The ruling in this case reaffirms that assumptions about transsexual women do not provide a basis for excluding them from acceptance as women in all facets of their lives."
While last year's decision created and deepened some rifts in the women's movement in British Columbia, it also helped to focus attention not only on issues of inclusion in general, but on the rights and needs of the transgender community in particular.
It helped issues of transgender reach the mainstream press. It contributed to an enhanced focus by policy makers and service providers on the needs of transgender people. The BC Human Rights Commission press release on this case stated that, "The commission has taken steps to work with members of the transgender community and women's organizations to increase understanding, acceptance, and accommodation."
One of these steps has been to work with the Justice Institute of BC and the transgender community to develop a three-pronged approach to enhance awareness and understanding of "trans" issues. This includes an "info-pack" for criminal justice system personnel about "trans" people. The pack would have information on their legal status, some of the challenges they face, and further resources; a brochure summarizing the key information; and a one or two-day training curriculum for anti-violence.
If such initiatives are related directly or indirectly to the victory won by Kimberly Nixon, then her long struggle has resulted in a significant step forward. Towards her striving, so that "...other transgendered women can access those services when they're in crisis."