Transgender Citizenship in Canada, and Beyond

TransCitizenshipHeader1A transgender is like a refugee without citizenship. S/he is without rights until a court grants them by categorizing him/her as either male or female. While outside of these categories, the transgender is most vulnerable and most likely to find him/herself without basic human rights (Bird 2002, quoted in Couch et al. 2008: 281).

Participatory models of citizenship and democracy involve just that – participation. However, trans* people face numerous impediments to their ability to participate as citizens in the democratic process. Trans* people rightly emphasize the potential contribution we could make to society; if we could gain access to fundamental rights, we would be as loyal and model as other citizens (Monro 2003: 438). At present numerous formal and informal barriers impede trans* peoples’ ability to be engaged participatory citizens. The difficulty in securing legal identification is a case in point.

Trans* people who change their legal name and/or sex need to amend dozens of documents and pieces of identification, including, for example, birth and citizenship certificates, credit cards, electoral rolls, house titles, naturalisation papers, passports, and police security data (Couch et al. 2008: 283). Requirements are complex, varying from one jurisdiction to another and are in regular flux.

Some jurisdictions require sex reassignment surgery as the condition for legal gender change (Adams Porter 2011; Couch et al. 2008: 284; More 1998, 320). Nor is this all: in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, for example, surgery is insufficient; individuals must also be unmarried (Hines 2009: 93). That is, married trans* people must be divorced before legal recognition is granted. Depending on the jurisdiction, the couple may need to remarry as a same-sex couple, or have their relationship ‘demoted’ to a civil union (Hines 2009: 93).

The surgical requirement itself is problematic. In 2012, Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal “found that requiring a person to have ‘transsexual surgery’ before they can change their sex designation on their birth registration is discriminatory (OHRC).” Two years later, a similar demand was removed from the B.C. Vital Statistics Act. However, the surgical prerequisite persists in various Canadian provinces and in the UK. Nor is this the only indication of the power of the medical profession: even in those jurisdictions with no surgical requirement, the trans* person is still required to have a physician’s or psychiatrist’s signature to authorize their legal sex change. At the moment, only those trans* people willing and able to receive medical approval can amend formal documents and pieces of identification.

Although the difficulty in securing the range of identity documents increasingly necessary in modern states also leaves some trans people with mismatched documents, the image of a trans* citizen actively claiming official recognition is a positive alternative to the longstanding (at least in the western culture) tendency to pathologize them (Monro 2003: 438-439). Indeed the fact that equality for trans* people is even being debated is an important advance in human rights.

Yet, even if progress has clearly occurred in certain jurisdictions, not everyone is an equal beneficiary of this progress. Although the research remains to be done, intersectional analysis suggests that negatively racialized or classed trans* people are likely to bear the special burden of prejudice. Assimilation is after all commonly the preferred path to inclusion in discourses of human rights and citizenship, and “those who remain ‘different’ are frequently constructed as ‘difficult’ and become further marginalized (Hines 2009: 95, 98-99).” The most marginal trans* people, including homeless, street-active people, and sex workers are particularly at risk (Sabsay 2011). Ironically, as well, the recurring emphasis on the potential of those trans* people who are able (and willing) to conform to the requirements of citizenship, may further stigmatize other members of the community who are not willing or able to make concessions to gender norms.

Full and active trans* citizenship requires fundamental changes to the way gender is understood and legalized (Monro 2003: 435), as well the “development of structures concerning participation [that] would include legislative change, community development, consultation and equal opportunity initiatives (Monro 2003: 449).” With the emphasis on effective assimilation, however, disenfranchised trans* people may find citizenship discourses unappealing, and see democratic participation as beyond their reach or unrelated to their current position and plight (Monro 2003: 446).” This tension between radical and assimilationist approaches to inclusion and citizenship remains a key for trans people, as indeed it does for communities singled out by gender, race, or class as somehow resisting the social (and economic and political) status quo.


Illustration credit: Emma Darling McMahon




Adams Porter, Chamonix. 2011. “Reproductive Rights beyond the Binary: Mandatory Transgender Sterilization.” Broad Horizons: A Feminist Magazine at Yale, November 10. Retrieved January 13 2015 (

Couch, M., Pitts, M., Croy, S. & Mulcare, H. (2008). Transgender People and the Amendment of Formal Documentation: Matters of Recognition and Citizenship.

Hines, S. (2009). A Pathway to Diversity?: Human Rights, Citizenship and the Politics of Transgender. Contemporary Politics – Special Issue: The Global Politics of LGBT Human Rights, 15(1), 87-102.

Moran, L. J. & Sharpe, A. (2004). Violence, Identity and Policing: The Case of Violence against Transgender People. Criminal Justice, 4(4): 395-417.

Monro, S. (2003). Transgender Politics in the UK. Critical Social Policy, 23(4), 433-452.

More, Sam Dylan. 1998. “The Pregnant Man – An Oxymoron?” Journal of Gender Studies 7(3): 319-328.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2012, April 20). Important Victory for Transgender Persons in Ontario. Retrieved online January 14 2015 (

Sabsay, L. (2011). The Limits of Democracy: Transgender sex work and citizenship. Cultural Studies, 25(2), 213-229.