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Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, Canada’s oldest rape crisis centre, has been stripped of city funding after refusing to rescind its policy of only serving female-born women.
In a statement, the organization said they were the victim of “discrimination against women in the name of inclusion” and accused Vancouver City Council of trying to “coerce us to change our position.”
Meanwhile, the measure was cheered by activists who have long singled out Vancouver Rape Relief as a bastion of “trans-exclusionary” behaviour.
After the vote, Vancouver city councillor Christine Boyle posted a tweet to her account accusing the organization of “supporting transphobia.”
“Trans women are women and sex work is work … I can’t support (organizations) who exclude them,” Boyle wrote in an accompanying note.
The defunding is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing struggle between transgender activists and feminist organizations who maintain that female-born and male-born women should remain distinct groups.
One of the figures leading the defunding charge against Vancouver Rape Relief was Morgane Oger, a longstanding transgender advocate and vice-president of the B.C. NDP.
In comments before a March 13 city committee meeting, Oger called Vancouver Rape Relief “noncompliant with Canadian law” and guilty of “systematic, consistent misbehaviour.” She also said that it is the last B.C. women’s shelter to continue denying services to the trans community.
“I can open any organization I want and discriminate against the people I don’t like … but when I start to bring taxpayer funding into this it makes this entire room responsible for my actions,” she said.
The group’s city funding will dry up starting in 2020. According to the measure pulling the money, Vancouver Rape Relief cannot access City of Vancouver grants “until such time as the organization makes changes to become aligned with … City policies.”
The City of Vancouver money represents only $33,972 of Vancouver Rape Relief’s more than $1 million per year budget (most of which is provided by the Province of B.C.). The City of Vancouver money was used for educational outreach programs, which Vancouver Rape Relief said were “free and accessible and available to everyone,” including trans people.
Founded in 1974, Vancouver Rape Relief has long attracted fierce criticism for refusing to admit trans women into its core services such as peer counselling sessions, shelters or transition homes.
In 2017, the official opening of the Vancouver Women’s Library, a space with links to Vancouver Rape Relief, was hijacked by protesters who handed out pamphlets reading “this library is run by women who hate other women.”
When the Licorice Parlour, an East Vancouver candy store, put up a poster in support of a Vancouver Rape Relief fundraiser in May, the shop was hit with online harassment and negative reviews for being “oppressive” and “transphobic.”
Vancouver Rape Relief has said that while they believe trans women need support and protection from violence, their “lived experience” is fundamentally different from a female-born woman.
“We do not have the experience to offer services to people without the same life experience … this is not our work,” Vancouver Rape Relief representative Hilla Kerner told a City a Vancouver committee last week.
In denying service to trans women, Kerner said their group was no different than other city-supported organizations who reserve their services towards a particular demographic group, be it immigrants, Chinese-speakers or native youth.
“Because we are an oppressed group who fights for equality we have a right to decide who are membership is and who we serve,” she said.
Men are strictly banned from spaces operated by Vancouver Rape Relief, and the organization has previously argued that their clients, all of whom are recovering from male violence, do not feel comfortable while in the presence of someone who used to live as a man. “Even deep voices, male insignia like baseball caps and boots can make women nervous,” wrote Lee Lakeman, a founder of the centre, in 2006.
More recently, in a January talk at Vancouver Public Library, Lakeman said “to me, this discussion of ‘inclusion’ is really the conduct of the backlash against feminism.”
In 2017, the agency even spoke against a federal measure to recognize “gender expression” and “gender identity” as protected human rights, saying it could be used to “undermine the rights of women.”
In 1995, the organization was the subject of a discrimination lawsuit led by Kimberly Nixon, a post-operative transgender woman who was denied Vancouver Rape Relief programming.
“She was rejected from the training program because she did not share the same life experiences as women born and raised as girls and into womenhood,” writes Vancouver Rape Relief on their website.
The B.C. Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in favour of Vancouver Rape Relief, and a further appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied.
By Tristin Hopper