When it comes to trans rights, washrooms have been a bone of contention, but for many it’s also an entry point to the discussion. Will trans people use the men’s washroom or the women’s? The men’s line or the women’s line at security check? The girls’ hostel, or the boys’? Hatred for people who do not neatly fit the binary is so high that recently a cisgender woman was brutalized for not looking ‘feminine enough’.
Violence against trans people may not necessarily be physical. It could also be in the form of using incorrect pronouns, or forced conversion therapy. The National Transgender Discriminatory Survey in the United States found that “41% of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives.” In India, there are numberless accounts of violence committed against trans persons. Jessica Robin Durling. who was herself was only introduced to the word “transgender” in seventh grade, maintains that education is key when addressing such recurring transphobic acts of violence.
In 2013, Hants East Rural High (Nova Scotia, Canada) revealed its transphobic attitude to Durling, then a final year student. Being denied access to something as basic as a washroom matching her gender identity marked the beginning of her fight against discrimination. Today, with a 13,000-strong following on Facebook, Durling is a human rights activist, engaging regularly on all issues of institutional discrimination and violence. She is creating a safe, accepting, informative and active space not just for trans individuals, but for queer identities everywhere.
Taking a break from smashing the patriarchy, Durling spoke with Cake about her journey, pressing issues for trans people, and advice for a younger generation grappling with identity.
What happened during your final year at high school, when you were prohibited from entering the washroom?
The school board wanted to segregate me, other trans students and staff. They told me if I wouldn’t obey I would be suspended, and if I continued to disobey it would lead to expulsion. I told them I wouldn’t stand for discrimination, and told them I would disobey, which I did. I was faced with suspension.
Later that day a news crew was called to my school. In my province “gender identity and gender expression” are protected human rights, and discriminating against a marginalized youth made the school look bad. They revoked the suspension, making me an “exception” to their discriminatory policy.
I went to many meetings with the department of education and the local school board and eventually the department of education issued new guidelines to protect transgender students. Unfortunately change was minimal. Even washroom usage, had discriminatory policy written into it, demanding that trans girls should ether use a change room with boys or use a gender neutral one (vice versa with trans guys). This is scary, discriminatory, and disgusting, and I’m scared for the Nova Scotia trans girls who have to go in a men’s changing room, or be segregated.
Going to facilities that match your gender identity is important, segregating someone for being transgender is uneducated at the very least, and a violation of the person’s basic human rights. Putting trans females with males, and trans males with females is also no solution, and is discrimination. All the trans people standing up to these guidelines have my respect.
Conservative groups and individuals often use religion, among other things, as a tool to discriminate against gender-non-conforming persons. What are the other ways people derail the discussion on trans rights, and why do you think they do this?
Some people and groups might use religion as a defence for their bigotry. For them, religion is just something to hide behind, a source of power they can try to use for their miseducation, aversion and hatred. Religion, in itself is beautiful. I’m Christian myself. I always like to say; I don’t worship the fan base, I worship God. I believe transphobes derail and attack trans people either because they don’t understand and/or want something to other, a group that they can feel righteous in attacking.
Earlier this month, members of the New Democratic Party passed a bill in Ontario to end conversion therapy for LGBT+ children. This seems like a major victory for human rights, but does the country still retain laws and provisions that endanger the natural and inalienable rights of trans people?
The ending of conversion therapy on minors is a great step forward in Ontario! Sadly there is a lot of work to go in Canada. Canada still hasn’t nationally passed any bill protecting transgender people’s human rights. Bill C-279 recently failed, which sought to add gender identity to the human rights act and criminal code of Canada. It ended up filled with transphobic amendments by Conservative member of the Senate, Donald Plett, in a last attempt to prevent the bill from passing. Luckily, some provinces have passed trans rights protections on their own provincially. My heart weeps for the trans people in areas not protected, and I will continue fighting, come next election, for a new bill to protect trans people in Canada.
Some people have argued that if trans women identify as women, and trans men identify as men, then recognizing the “third gender” is unnecessary. When Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover came out, Laverne Cox commented about the cisnormative standards that many trans people conform to. On your YouTube channel, you also covered some tips about “passing”. Can you explain what “passing” is, and how significant is the gender binary for the trans community?
Passing is to appear as the gender you are (a trans female appearing as female, a trans male appearing as male, without their trans status noticeable), it’s often used to keep a trans person’s trans status hidden. There are many reasons to do this, such as to avoid discrimination. Many people may value a trans person that passes over a trans person who doesn’t, which is unfortunate. Many “passing” techniques for trans females are things of traditional beauty. The treatment towards non-passing trans females is often laced with misogyny, that if they don’t fit the traditional beauty standards they are less desirable, that if they have any traits deemed masculine or associated with males they aren’t really trans or are inferior.
“Binary” refers to the gender identities of male and female, while “non-binary” refers to a person who is non-binary. A person who is non-binary has a gender identity that falls outside of male and female – a mix of, both, or neither. Many trans people are binary, a trans female is female, and a trans male is male, not a third gender, the same as any binary cis female is female or any binary cis male is male. Being “trans” is no more of an trait than ones a hair colour, or skin colour, or the shape of one’s nose. Sadly, trans people often have their gender invalidated and face discrimination just for being born trans. One identifying as a “trans female”, does not make them a subsection of female, but is nothing more than someone with long hair identifying as a “long haired female” or someone black identifying as a “black female”, ultimately a trans female is female.
There’s a lot of confusion about what gender identity and gender expression is, and how they’re distinct. Think you could clear that up for us?
Transgender refers to a person whose birth sex designation or sex doesn’t match their gender identity. An example of this could be a person who is declared male at birth, and is believed to be male by others but has a female gender identity. Their own gender identity is apparent to them and may say things like they have a “girls soul boy’s body”, or simply rejecting the declaration of their gender identity to be male.
Transgender people have a distinct disconnect of sexual characteristics, and what the brain expects to be there. This CAN cause dysphoria – a feeling similar to depression. Dysphoria is dangerous, and is only treated by transitioning the body to match what the brain expects to be there. Every trans person’s level of dysphoria is different, just because they feel they don’t need a specific level of medical treatment doesn’t make them any less trans.
Gender expression how you present yourself in regards to gender stereotypes. These gender stereotypes are negative social-constructs, causing us to limit ourselves. Transgender guys, like any guys, can like skirts, Barbie dolls, and the colour pink. Trans females, like any females, can like the colour blue, toy trucks, and short hair. Same goes for non-binary genders! Gender identity doesn’t equal gender expression! Gender expression doesn’t make someone transgender.
Given that most people do not know enough or at all about sex-reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy, the health care needs of trans people remains unaddressed. Can you comment on this?
The healthcare of trans people should be a top priority. Trans people deserve medical treatment, their lives are of as much value as cis peoples. Nobody should be forced to die from dysphoria, unable to afford proper medical treatment. Necessary medical treatment should be easily accessible, for all ages.
If there was something you could say to your younger self, and the many young people on your Facebook page, about challenging the heteropatriarchal order, the struggles and the victories, the good and the bad, what would you say?
If there was something I could say to my younger self it would be that “you will always have you”. Even when it feels alone, and no one else is there you will always have yourself, you should draw courage from that. Don’t be afraid to come out, get the medical help you need, challenge transphobia where you see it, but don’t challenge it alone. You have a community, use it.