ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - As Newfoundland and Labrador celebrates its gay pride week, pressure is growing on the province to improve human rights protections for the transgender community, one of society's most marginalized and vulnerable groups.
The NDP has called on the Progressive Conservative government to add gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination under its Human Rights Act.
Openly gay NDP member Gerry Rogers says the province should follow action already taken in the Northwest Territories, Ontario, Manitoba and parts of the U.S. and Europe to distinctly protect men and women who present as the opposite sex or are in the midst of transitioning.
In Ottawa, an NDP bill to include gender identity in federal human rights law has won support from several members of the Conservative majority government.
"We know the research that's out there. It's undeniable, the type of discrimination that transgendered, transsexual people experience on a daily basis, whether it be actual hate crimes or very subtle discrimination," Rogers said in an interview.
"It's important that our human rights code extends specific protection for them."
Rogers has repeatedly pushed the government on the issue to no avail. But the passing of a bill last month to add both "gender identity" and "gender expression" to Ontario's human rights code was hailed by supporters as a breakthrough that could see other provinces follow suit.
Zack Marshall, a 42-year-old social worker and PhD student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, was born a woman but has been living as a man for seven years. He moved to St. John's last year from Toronto, where he says he made his sexual transition with the support and services he needed.
Many others living in remote areas or without the ability to navigate complex social and medical systems aren't so lucky, he said in an interview. Rates of suicide, depression and poverty stalk the transgender community like no other, Marshall said of statistics compiled by Trans PULSE, a project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
It reported in 2010 the results of a survey of 433 transgender people aged 16 or older in Ontario. It found that 43 per cent of respondents had attempted suicide, 20 per cent had been targets of physical or sexual assaults and 34 per cent had been verbally harassed or threatened.
While the estimated transgender population in Newfoundland and Labrador is tiny by comparison, Marshall says it's no less important that the province add specific gender identity protections to ensure fair access to housing, jobs and other services.
"It makes trans people more visible," he said. "It makes it possible to say, 'Hey, you know we have a policy here that says I have a right to have access to this.'"
Provincial Justice Minister Felix Collins said in an email that he's willing to consider changes, but discrimination based on gender identity is already prohibited.
He stressed that the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission has an internal guideline "that complaints related to gender expression, gender identity, transsexual and transgender are accepted under the prohibited ground of 'sex.'"
Still, chairman Remzi Cej said in an email that the provincial Human Rights Commission "strongly supports the addition of gender identity into the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the NL Human Rights Act."
Moreover, he said the commission advised the government to that effect back in 2009 when it held consultations for its new 2010 human rights legislation.
Collins has also raised concerns about how "gender identity" should be defined. In May, he told the house of assembly in response to Rogers that it "was too confusing an issue to try to explain it in one single provision in the Human Rights Act."
Toronto-area NDP member Cheri DiNovo, who led efforts to include gender protections in Ontario's law, has little time for such arguments.
"Quite frankly, just to say 'sex' or 'sexual orientation' does not cover trans people," she said in an interview.
She referred to provincial and federal cases where transgender people have been denied everything from driver's licences to airline boarding passes because their identification "doesn't match up with what they're seen to be by some official."
Ottawa-Centre member Yasir Naqvi, a governing Liberal who co-sponsored DiNovo's bill, said the focus in Ontario was on protecting rights.
"Definitional arguments can become a red herring sometimes, preventing us from doing the right thing."
Ontario human rights lawyer Douglas Elliott said extending those protections in other parts of the country would, at the very least, symbolically ease "a very tragic situation."
"The message that leaving this out of human rights legislation sends to trans people is that they're not welcome as members of the community, that they're not part of the family, that they deserve the kind of ill treatment that they receive," he said from Toronto.
"Folks in Newfoundland and Labrador in particular know what inclusion is all about and how important it is to feel part of a community."