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04 June 2014

Trans Activism in Canada – a review

  • Dan Irving & Rupert Raj (eds). Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader. Canadian Scholar's Press, 2014. $69.95.

When I reviewed Susan Stryker's Transgender History, 2008, I commented: "the title needs two caveats. This is a not a history of transgender persons and their achievements in show biz, music, sex work, computing, health work, literature, the law, religion, the military, police work, teaching, sports etc. It is a history of almost only trans activism. Secondly it is restricted to one country." This new book by Dan Irving & Rupert Raj is upfront about being confined to Canada, and mainly being about activism.

However 'activism/activist' is never defined except by naming exemplars. The core concept is, of course, persons who agitate on behalf of trans men and women, who organise groups and campaign for law reform etc. But activism is also implicit in trans persons who become prominent in other fields and are quite open about being trans. Some examples are Synthia Kavanagh, convicted murderer, who agitated through the Human Rights system so that first herself and then other prisoners were able to obtain transgender surgery (unfortunately now terminated by the Harper government); Carys Massarella, prominent physician in Hamilton, openly trans and lead physician in the city's transgender care program; Michelle Duff, motorcycle racer, winner of 1964 Belgian Grand Prix, who still makes appearances at Canadian and international motorcycle events and so makes the rather macho world of motorcycles more trans friendly; Michelle Josef, drummer with Prairie Oyster, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other bands, who sued the Ontario government to re-instate funding for transgender surgery. None of these persons are considered worthy of even a passing mention by any of the authors in this book.

So while inmates, physicians, sports stars and musicians are not regarded as activists even when their activities have resulted in benefits for the community, the book does include the work of academics, even when they do not have similar claims. With this in mind it is instructive to peruse the Contributor Biographies at the end of the book. Most of the non-academics use one wording or another to say that they are transsexual, two-spirit, intersex, had transitioned, had surgery etc. When we look at the academics, they have written books, and hold positions in institutions. What they do not mention is whether they are trans. Some of us know from elsewhere that some of them actually are, but not from this book. A more descriptive title of the book would be Trans Academics and Activism in Canada. There is even a tendency for activists to turn into academics. We first meet Treanor Mahood-Greer in Chapter 8 where he was an activist who had previously been a butch woman working with men in the bush. He returns in Chapter 18 with a paper based on his Masters of Social Work thesis.

When I reviewed Crossing Sexual Boundaries by Ariadne Kane and Vern Bullough, I was critical of it for excluding immigrants, the working class, sex workers and particularly androphiles. No such criticism could be raised re Trans Activism in Canada. Each of Canada's major demographic groups are represented: First Nations and Métis, descendants from French colonists, descendants from English colonists, recent immigrants. There are affluent and impoverished and all sexual orientations. Unusually for trans anthologies, but obviously given who the two editors are, there is a strong male presence.

It seems a bit unbalanced that three chapters in the book are attributed to Vivian Namaste. The Afterword and two interviews: with Michell De Ville (who always appears in Namaste's books, just as Virginia Prince appeared in Vern Bullough's books) and Marie-Marcelle Godbout. Both interviews, well worth reading, document performance/activist lives in Montréal across the decades, and Namaste manages to keep her usual Foucaultianisms out of the way. However why are De Ville and Godbout not listed in the Contributor Biographies section at the end of the book? (Unlike Chapter 8 where Grey Muldoon and his interviewer are both listed as contributors). When I wrote about Dianna Boileau (not mentioned in this book), the first trans patient at the Clarke Institute and the first Canadian transsexual autobiography, I repeated the rumour that there had been transgender surgery in Montréal at about the same time, 1969. Marie-Marcelle Godbout knew the woman in question and tells us what happened to her.

Jamie Lee Hamilton is of course possibly the trans and whore activist with the best track record not only in Canada, but world-wide. She has organized, run for many offices, and almost alone agitated to get the police to pay attention to the serial killings now attributed to Robert Picton (although the Wikipedia article on Picton denies her the credit that she very much deserves). Her account of her life and work is worth reading again, even though most of it was included in a profile of her in the June 2010 issue of The Walrus. It is unfortunate that there is no explanation of why the 2005 biography of her by Barbara Daniel has completely disappeared.

Since Rupert Raj's Wikipedia page was removed, the only account of his life on the web is the one by me. Nick Matte's "Rupert Raj and the Rise of Transsexual Consumer Activism in the 1980s" could at first reading be an account of a different person – especially as he omits my account of Rupert from his bibliography. It is a compliment to Rupert that different accounts are possible. Matte concentrates on Rupert's Metamorphosis Medical Research Foundation and its publication, and says almost nothing about the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT). He has a passing kind word for Susan Huxford, but doesn't bother to mention how she damaged FACT and reduced Gender Review, which was well worth reading when Rupert edited it, to little more than a diary of her own activities. Matte highlights two reviews published in the Metamorphosis newsletter. The first by D.Hudson (whom he fails to identify as the last chairperson of FACT-Toronto) was of Gender Dysphoria, 1985 by the team at the Clark Institute of Psychiatry. Matte says: "the review validated and recognized many trans people's frustrations with the gender clinic research model as being out of touch with their realities, as well as their efforts to negotiate the world as trans people". However both Hudson and Matte fail to mention that this book lays out the Autogynephilia model – the full perniciousness of which was not realized until later. The second review was by Lou Sullivan of Lothsteins's Female-to-Male Transsexualism, which insisted that trans men were lesbians in denial. Sullivan rightly castigated this as 'dangerous and regressive'.

Elizabeth James' is an inspiring story of descent into heroin and bank robbery, but after prison she embraced her two-spirit heritage and turned her life around.

Sandy Laframboise is another positive model whose rise from whore to social worker is inspiring. And as with Marie-Marcelle Godbout there is a second story of a trans colleague of Sandy's that should be told but is quickly summarized in a footnote.

One of the most inspiring chapters is Grey Muldoon's. In 2009 he hitch-hiked around northern Ontario and visited seven trans activists in Sudbury, North Bay, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie. Life there is necessarily different from that in the big cities in the south of the province, and has its own experiences of gender non-conformity. A particular example is Wendy who does travel to Toronto for appointments with the CAMH Gender Clinic. However she explains that CAMH 'have no clue about the North'. They press her to have long hair, and wear skirts and makeup, but none of the cis women that she knows do those things. She rightly insists on presenting as a woman on local terms.

Trish Salah's chapter is a case study of how a trade union (Canadian Union of Public Employees – CUPE) can accept non-discrimination against trans persons as part of its remit. In her 20-pages, she spends the first six discussing the use of the term 'transgender' in another country. She tells us nothing of how it was used in Canada. She repeats yet again the misinformation that Virginia Prince introduced the term, citing Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors. How many times does this have to be refuted before people stop claiming it? My 2011 article, The Myth that Transgender is a Princian Concept explains step by step why the Princian claim is not true. Salah apparently does not want to know this. The editors should have advised her to drop this section of her article. On the seventh page she writes: "I do not have the space here to document a longer history of trans activism in the Canadian or international context". Indeed! She then quickly traces trans activism back to the mid-1990s. Those of us who were doing it in the 1970s, are not too impressed. She documents how trans persons in CUPE came out, and were able using precedents set by GLB and feminist activism to get pro-trans resolutions passed within CUPE, but without member engagement. When times got tougher, other priorities were attended to and trans issues forgotten. Towards the end she is talking more about sex workers than trans public and university employees. "...there was a persistent doubt as to whether they were legitimately representing sex workers, trans people, or trade unionists, and skepticism about what 'they' had to do with 'us' ". I feel that she fails to explain the issue with regard to CUPE. She mentions hard-working trans-sex-worker activists such as Jamie Lee Hamilton and Sandy Laframboise, but does not claim that they were in CUPE. Surely she is not trying to say that sex workers have CUPE membership cards? I certainly agree that the Canadian Labour Congress and its member unions should provide money and advice to help sex workers to unionize, but the account here is confusing.

The major discussion of the CAMH (previously the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry) Gender Clinic is by Will Rowe, which is another chapter based on a Master of Social Work thesis. Rowe does, as we would expect, talk of the "incredibly transphobic history of CAMH's GIC". He interviewed four trans men about their current experiences with the CAMH GIC. For an earlier period, the 1990s, he relies on Namaste's writings. Namaste, as per her usual approach, never told us whether she was actually a patient at CAMH, although, as she lived in Ottawa and then Toronto while she transitioned, she quite likely was. No other trans women or other earlier patients are cited or discussed. This despite the extensive section on the CAMH GIC in my own writings and those of Andrea James. James' material is especially germane in that she reprinted first person accounts of what happened there. It is particularly odd in Rowe's account is that there is no mention of autogynephilia, and no mention of Ray Blanchard. Autogynephilia is the most pernicious face of the CAMH GIC's transphobia, so how can it not be mentioned? Rowe also fails to mention the only two books books published by the CAMH GIC: Gender Dysphoria: Development, Research, Management, 1985, and Clinical management of gender identity disorders in children and adults, 1990. These two books which are the CAMH GIC explaining itself are dominated by Kurt Freund and Ray Blanchard and are the definitive exposition of autogynephilia. Rowe does not explain this omission, any more than Namaste explained why she also removed the same topic. Why are Namaste and Rowe removing autogynephilia from the history of the CAMH GIC?

The CAMH Gender Clinic was dominated by US immigrants: Blanchard, Zucker, Cantor, and understandably they endorsed the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). They may be pleased that not a single writer in this anthology questions why Canadian psychotherapy is using a foreign diagnostic manual rather than either having its own like France or Sweden or using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A final niggle. The contributor biography for Broden Giambrone says that he is 'currently' doing an MHSc at the University of Toronto. That was four years ago. He has been CEO at TENI in Dublin since.

The not-so good parts of the book: that Michell De Ville and Marie-Marcelle Godbout are not listed as contributors; the pretence that autogynephilia is not part of the history of CAMH; the lack of shame in uncritically accepting the DSM in Canada.

The best of the book: the variety of persons, especially the otherwise undocumented activists in Northern Ontario; Marie-Marcelle Godbout's defiant declaration:
"And I never hid who I was. I would not want to be anything other than transsexual. If you were to tell me that I had a chance to do it all over again, I would say leave me as I am. I worked hard to get here."


  1. I don't subscribe to these types of books because much of my time (which is better used by me creating and being me!) is consumed and wasted by them. I see them (the books, et al) as a total sham and I dis-trust them in my gut because of that. I'm also a bit cheap, I mean, $69.95 to tell me what I already know? However, they did gain a publisher!

    I have no delusions and know who and what I am; a trans-person.

    A very well written article but a total waste of your energy, Zagria, IMO! You could put your energy to better use, you have in the past. Still, kudos to you!

  2. Please Shelly Ball /Edmonton, Vancouver B. C. If this is U let me know how 2 write U. I'm an old, grateful, past friend who'd like 2 thank U by writing U or by ph. cause ��️ don't know how 2 Use internet well & don't trust face book. I'd like 2 thank U 4 your many, past, random acts of kindness that U did 4 me because U are the awesome wonderful, Shelly I'm proud 2 know. ��️ will never 4 get U in a very special. wonderful. kind way that many more people could & should do & say every day because they care & God made them special enough 2 know it & often show it because that's who & what makes then unique, loving, & who they are deep in their ❤️ & soul. 2 bad jealous, insecure, individuals try 2 dismantell & destroy what they only wish they could have 4 themselves but are evil, mean & just plain nasty people who try 2 take all of the other ❣️'s & souls around them who will mindlessly follow. Not daring to say No, I do not agree. You are not c��L. You are a small, sad, heart & soul who needs extra prayers if you believe & a search of your own ��, & soul. Use U' r life & �� wisely, life you'll find is much shorter than U think. We all take our ��‍�� health 4 granted until it's gone. �� Then we remember God, & cry, pray, a lot, read the Bible & scream 2 all, mainly, GOD ; 4 help, ��, & forgiveness. WAKE UP { SHEEPELESS / PEOPLES} COVID-19 does not discriminate. Rich, poor, Satan/ God, Blk, Wht, skinny, fat, ��‍�� on or off I'm not picky... I' ll take as many of you all that I can. Why..? ��️ don't know I just do, mutate & kill. ������. Catch �� me ��‍�� ��‍�� ��‍❤️‍�� ����‍��‍��‍����️‍♀️��‍���� �� ������‍♀️ ��‍��‍��‍��❣️������������‍�� �� ��. ��, I L❣️VE You, wake up before It"s 2 late... !!!


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