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.

A First: Sweden Elects Soraya Post of the Feminist Initiative Party to the European Parliament

tumblr_n3q0s2L7P11twpxfio1_1280In May 2014, Sweden, one of the Nordic ‘magical kingdoms’ that are sometimes famed as feminist nirvanas, made history. Brussels is about to welcome a Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from a feminist party.

Elected through a system of proportional representation (PR), the European parliament is composed of 751 members from 28 states and is responsible for an expanding range of laws and policies in areas such as agriculture, energy, and immigration. PR has historically been fairer than ‘first past the post’ systems to women. Since the first EU election in 1979, member states have generally elected more women to the EU than they have to the national assemblies. They made up 16% of the first MEPs. By 2009, they counted for 35.1%. That growth seemed promising. Although not all are feminists, as the case of Marine Le Pen below illustrates, many are sympathetic.[1]

Other less progressive groups can nevertheless also be successful. The May 2014 election saw unprecedented advances from right wing (often anti-immigrant) parties and euro-skeptics, although they did not gain a majority. In France and the United Kingdom, the Front National (led by a female anti-feminist Le Pen) and the UK Independence Party, gained significant ground. Left wing parties nevertheless also reported victories in countries such as Greece and Spain.       .

While the policies of the EU have sometimes reflected the success of second wave feminism, Europe and its governments, like those elsewhere, have seen the rise of the new Right and neo-liberalism with their extended and intended injuries to women and human rights more generally. Bad times for equality have been especially visible since the 2008 economic crash. This helps explain the appearance of feminist party MEP candidates from Sweden, Germany, and France in 2014. One would be successful.

Despite its reputation for progressive gender politics,[2] Sweden has not escaped the consequences of misogyny and racism. As one British scholar has concluded “if one takes ‘gender equality’ as the benchmark rather than comparison with other industrialised societies, as does, for instance, the Swedish Political Platform for a Feminist Initiative … then the glass starts to look half empty.”[3] In the last two decades Sweden has shown troubling signs of a reactionary men’s rights movement, summed up as ‘wronged white men’ even as the gendered wage gap and male violence persisted.[4] Anti-immigrant sentiments are part of the same poisonous arsenal.

In 2005-6, Swedish feminists founded Feminist Initiatives to contest the reactionary tide. At its helm was Gudrun Schyman (b 1948), the former leader of the Swedish Left Party (1993-2003), signaling the traditional links between feminism and more progressive politics. The support of American activists, the actress Jane Fonda and the author of the Vagina Monologues, Eve Enslersuggested international influences. While Swedish feminism has sometimes been charged with paternalism and colonialism in dealing with non-Europeans,[5] the new party deliberately embraced contemporary feminism’s intersectional analysis of oppression.

That embrace helps explain why Soraya Post (b 1956), an early president of the International Romani Women’s Network and long-time champion of immigrant rights was the FI’s first ranked candidate. She and other FIers rallied voters with the slogan, “Out with racists and in with feminists.” As she explained, “I was born in Sweden—my family has been in Sweden for hundreds of years—but I was living as a second-class citizen because of my ethnicity.” Her 21-year-old mother had endured “forced sterilization”. Post’s response to the rise of reactionary politics was straightforward: “we want to develop the democracy in a way that is based and grounded in human rights. …The feminists are the greatest enemy of the Fascists…. We don’t want to wait anymore. We’ve had enough.”[6]

The meaning of Soraya Post’s success, and of the appearance of feminist parties elsewhere in the 2014 election, is unclear. Some observers fear they will “end up letting the mainstream parties off the hook.”[7] It may, however, be possible that the 2014 election signals frustration with liberal feminism’s state project of compromise and conciliation earlier condemned by political theorist Chantal Mouffe in The Return of the Political (1993). Certainly Swedish feminists and their allies, like others around the globe, are understandably disillusioned when the hard-won advances of the Second Feminist Wave are increasingly threatened. The old dream of feminist parties, first voiced by suffragists, is one solution.




[1] The gender makeup will not be confirmed until the first session of the new parliament. See the European Parliament, accessed 1 June 2014.

[2] See Marie Nordberg, “Sweden. The Gender Equality Paradise?” in Keith Pringle, ed., Men and Masculinities in Europe (NY: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2006).

[3] Ruth Lister, “Postscript. Gender, citizenship and social justice in the Nordic welfare states: a view from the outside,” in Kari Melby et al, eds., Gender Equality and Welfare Politics in Scandinavia: The limits of political ambition? (Bristol, UK: The Policy Press 2009), 217. See also her “A Nordic Nirvana? Gender, Citizenship and Social Justice in the Nordic Welfare States,” Social Politics 16:2 (2009): 242-78.

[4] Mona Lilja and Evelina Johansson, Understanding Power and Performing Resistance: Swedish Feminists, Civil Society Voices, Biopolitics and ‘Angry’ Men,” NORA. Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 21:4 (2013): 264-79.

[5] See Chia-Ling Yang, “Whose Feminism? Whose Emancipation?” in Suvi Keskinen, et al, eds. Complying with Colonialism: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009): 241-56.

[6] Kat Stoeffel, “Meet the EU Parliament’s (Likely) First-Elected Feminist Party Member,” The Cut (23 May 2014),

[7] Cathy Newman, “Why the hell has Europe voted in a feminist party? The Telegraph (27 May 2014),

Women, Religion and the Quebec Charter of Values: An Historical Perspective*

Three_muslim_women_(6219047008)Since it was first announced in May of 2013, the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, or Bill 60, has launched a flurry of commentary, with some prominent public figures lauding it as a much needed step in addressing reasonable accommodation in the province, and others, such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission, denouncing it as an affront to civil liberties. If you are a CBC radio junky such as myself, you have probably already heard many of these debates, such as this one, or, more recently, this.

For anyone unfamiliar with the bill and what it proposes, it is intended as a means of promoting secularism in Quebec’s public sector. Its most controversial tenets include enforcing the “religious neutrality” of state-funded educators and health care workers, banning the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by public servants (including the hijab, niqāb, or burqa, the kippah, turbans,  as well as larger crosses and religious pendants) and disallowing the covering of one’s face when providing or receiving a state service. (If you’re really keen, take a look at the Charter yourself here.)

Many feminists have spoken against the charter, arguing that it is an attack against Muslim women in particular. Just a few days ago, the Quebec Women’s Federation held a brunch to offer women a space in which to voice their concerns over the charter and what it will mean. As president of the Federation, Alexa Conradi, has insisted, women of all backgrounds need to hold firm together to ensure that women’s rights are not infringed upon.  And she has a right to be concerned. If this bill is passed, many women of faith will be forced to make a decision—either relinquish their ability to adhere to their religious beliefs or lose their job.

It is truly ironic that Bill 60, proposed as an amendment to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will undoubtedly marginalize those it is endeavouring to ‘free’. Yet it is noteworthy, that this approach to regulating spiritual women is nothing new. It is, in fact, an affirmation of historical ideas about women and religion and their alleged inability to make reasonable, informed decisions on their own behalf. As a plethora of religious historians have pointed out, women of faith and rational decision making have long been perceived as two opposite ends of the spectrum. Women from the nineteenth to the twentieth century in particular have been consistently viewed as passive, intuitive and illogical (in contrast to men) and thus more able to give themselves over completely to a divine power. The converse is also true. As my own work on interwar psychical research has explored, when women are viewed as too willful, their legitimacy as spiritual mediators immediately becomes suspect. As a result, religious women have had to be extra creative in asserting their own desires and acting on their own accord — or to use academic fancy-speak: exercising “agency.”

Admittedly, the actions and beliefs of some religious women have confounded scholars who largely define agency as a form of overt or subtle resistance. This becomes especially the case when women of faith do not prescribe to certain identifiable values that Western feminism largely upholds. Scholar Saba Mahmood has particularly critiqued and complicated the idea of agency when examining Muslim Egyptian women who eagerly adhere to what is often viewed by those in the Western world as sexist practices meant to affirm gender inequality, including the wearing of garments like the hijab.[1] A common response is simply to dismiss these allegedly ‘backward’ women, especially if they are not white or if they come from somewhere outside the Western world.  The Quebec Charter of Values goes one step farther by arguing that these women should be forced to abide by a suspiciously Christianized version of secularism. Behind all of this is the historically entrenched assumption that if religious women can’t make reasonable decisions on their own behalf, women who are marked as somehow beyond or outside Western liberal values especially cannot, and thus need to be liberated by the benevolent state.

Undoubtedly women in various parts of the world are forced to adhere to so-called ‘traditional’ Islamic principles, but many, in Quebec and elsewhere, actually choose to wear the hijab as an expression of their beliefs, culture and religious commitments. This does not mean they have internalized sexist ideologies to such a degree that they cannot conceive of living any other way (unless coerced by government sanctions, as those behind the Quebec Charter of Values seem to think).  Contrary to historically constructed ideas about women of faith and their innate passivity and irrationality, these women are making informed and thoughtful decisions about what they believe and how they will represent themselves. As such, their ability to make decisions without fear of oppression need not only be respected, but protected.



*This piece was initially posted on on February 14, 2014.

 Photo credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts


[1] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 5-17.