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It was not easy for Ky Rees to take the province to court five years ago over the way it handled changing gender on government-issued identification.
“It was a grueling court case, truly,” Rees told The Telegram in a recent interview by email. “To this day it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. After the court case concluded, I took a big step back from the public eye and activism and even left the province for a while to restore myself.”
But the endeavour was certainly worthwhile.
According to data obtained from Service NL, 273 people in Newfoundland and Labrador successfully applied to change their sex designation from 2016-19. By comparison, only 27 people did so in the province from 2010-15.
In 2016 the government made changes to the Vital Statistics Act and the Change of Name Act permitting residents to change their sex designation without sex reassignment surgery.
Rees, who identifies as non-binary, was attempting to change the gender on their birth certificate and decided to take the matter to court in late 2014. At the time, Rees told the media about dealing with feelings of anxiety and humiliation while using government IDs that did not reflect the way Rees was in public. In July 2015, a government lawyer announced at Supreme Court in St. John's the province would introduce a bill to address the matter.
Rees was blown away by the numbers when contacted by The Telegram.
“Wow, looking at those numbers I feel surrounded, it brings a tear to my eye,” Rees told The Telegram. “Seeing 10 times the rates of previous years, I see our community unchained by red tape that was designed to disenfranchise us, keep us invisible and feeling small. Why shouldn’t a person be able to have their identity reflected on the piece of paper that is supposed to represent them? I'm glad that mine and so many others are finally able to be validated.
“I’m honoured to be a part of the story of our liberation, but it’s not just my story, as many amazing trans and queer activists stood by my side laying the groundwork and supported me for this collective victory.”
Rees is quick to credit others who have continued to fight for transgender rights, making specific mention of Gemma Hickey, a local LGBTQ+ activist who was among the first people in Canada to obtain a gender-neutral birth certificate and passport. Like Rees, Hickey had to file an application in court before the province decided it would change legislation to accommodate non-binary birth certificates.
The court case was hard on Rees, who said they would have been lost without the support of family, friends and their partner when attempting to survive public scrutiny and harassment, as well as the media's misrepresentation of their identity.
“Putting oneself out there, you’re subject to people’s ideas about who and what you are, and when there’s all that noise coming at you, it can be very difficult to hear yourself and you can lose sight of who you are very easily. That's exactly what happened to me. I lost control of the narrative, my narrative, in the noise. It was traumatic and so I’m still working out how that chapter of my life has influenced who I am today, as a person, an activist and in terms of my gender; for a long time, me expressing any femininity felt tainted somehow by the experience.
“Looking back, even if it left some scars I don’t regret it, especially now seeing those numbers. It’s consoling to feel like that part of my journey was meaningful and had purpose, however small. I want to thank each of those 273 people for giving me that gift, to feel proud of myself again.”
Once laws were changed in Newfoundland and Labrador, it still took a lot of time and money for Rees to change IDs, as there were separate processes to go through for MCP, a driver’s license, social insurance and voter registries. Rees went through the same process again once the non-binary designation became an option for Newfoundland and Labrador birth certificates in 2017 — represented by an X mark.
“However, it’s well worth it, being able to present my ID and feel like it reflects who I am. For many trans people it’s an act of self-validation, a profession of pride and assertion of their visibility,” Rees said. “It’s something cisgender folks rarely think about, but one uses ID daily, it's integral. It's not just a piece of plastic or paper, it's a key to so many doors.”
While the battle over birth certificates may be a thing of the past, Rees knows there are still plenty of issues the provincial government needs to address regarding transgender rights. Rees said only a handful of physicians in the province are willing to accept transgender patients, and there's still a need for local assessors to approve gender-affirming surgeries. People in this province have to fly to Ontario to deal with the latter matter, which Rees said can prove to be a prohibitive barrier. The Quadrangle Community Centre in St. John's, which received official charitable status from the federal government last month, is lobbying the provincial government for funding to establish a physical space for the LGBTQ+ community.
“Our community desperately needs a rallying point, somewhere to bring together this unstoppable force of a community, a haven that isn’t a bar,” Rees said. “It’s my hope that the province listens, and is proactive this time instead of someone having to sue them in order to get their attention.”
Change of sex designations by year in Newfoundland and Labrador:
• 2010 — 1
• 2011 — 4
• 2012 — 1
• 2013 — 2
• 2014 — 4
• 2015 — 15
• 2016 — 58
• 2017 — 72
• 2018 — 69
• 2019 — 74
Figures provided by Service NL