“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you're trans, you don't have family, they kick you out,” says Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman living in Toronto.
“It is very difficult,” she says, even “comparable to biblical times,” when lepers were shunned by the community. “You're distanced; you're pulled from your family; you're cast out of the community. So you don't see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don't have it anymore.”
Ms. Towndrow's experience as a transgender person is not uncommon. Data from independent research groups, like Trans PULSE, consistently show transgender persons in Canada are significantly more likely to be fired from jobs or assaulted. They are at a higher risk for suicide. In Toronto and other cities around the world the 18th annual Trans Day of Remembrance was held on Nov. 20, commemorating the 295 lives lost globally because of transphobia in 2016.
Ms. Towndrow says she is not an activist, but she is acquainted with the realities reflected in the data. “When I transitioned, which was a three-year process for me, the one thing that kind of kept me going was the fact that once a week I met with other people who had the same problems as I did,” she says. “I really thought I was the only person on earth who was dealing with this.
“I was in deep poverty. I didn't know anything about social supports in the city. I existed on a bag of apples a week and slept on a lawn chair in my bedroom.”
Currently Canada has no law protecting transgender people from discrimination resulting from their gender identities. That could change with the passage of the recently proposed Bill C-16, which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to make it illegal to discriminate against people based on their gender identities or expressions.
The bill would also amend Canada's Criminal Code to include gender identity and expression among classes of people protected against hate crimes. The proposed bill would create some legal space for a marginalized community in Canada, but it has also generated some public controversy.
Stylizing himself as a “professor against political correctness,” University of Toronto professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson worries the motivations for the bill are laying the groundwork for a “totalitarian” state. In a series of controversial videos, Mr. Peterson laments what he sees as a war against common sense and free speech. His refusal to use the pronouns preferred by transgender people in particular drew the attention of activists, opening up a public debate on the social and legal place of transgender people.
Though Mr. Peterson finds the bill and its surrounding culture threatening, legal experts have so far found no basis for his specific fears, namely the possibility of being criminalized for rejecting the preferred pronouns of others. That has not stopped his videos from striking a chord, however. His YouTube channel presently brings in $14,000 (CAD) a month in donations from viewers, and he often appears on television shows, radio programs and podcasts.
While Mr. Peterson's career as a crusader for free speech has taken off, polling shows most Canadians support C-16. Nevertheless, the anxieties he has expressed have brought the public conversation about trans persons, pronouns and hospitality to the fore. He has perhaps unintentionally made the transgender community and those who support them more visible, too. Among them is All Inclusive Ministries, a Catholic community based out of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Jesuit church near Toronto's gay village. Included in its programs is a monthly Saturday Mass that invites L.G.B.T. persons and their families and friends to worship in an affirming environment.
Gilles Mongeau, S.J., associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, has worked with All Inclusive Ministries. In an emailed response, he offers his own advice about the use of pronouns. “The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people,” he says. “Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”
Advice like that can be hard for some to hear, especially since people with transgender identities are only recently becoming more publicly visible. Biological sex and gender may be more complicated than is generally believed, and Father Mongeau says, “We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”
He underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of “gender theory,” he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: “He who was a she, but is a he,” the pope said.
While the pronoun debate rages on, Bill C-16 aims to create a more just society for the transgender community. “To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians,” says Father Mongeau.
That effort could not come too soon, Ms. Towndrow suggests: “I see so many of the people that I know who have fallen by the wayside. They've either become so poor that they've gone into prostitution, and of course been in so much pain that they've gone into drugs.” There are a lot of casualties “along the way,” according to Ms. Towndrow.
“They're having a terrible time living in the gender that they're in, but they're scared to go outside being themselves, worried about being beat up or whatever,” she says.
Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, “I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”
C-16 passed through Canada's House of Commons on Dec. 1 by a vote of 248 to 40 and now awaits a hearing in the Senate.
Though Ms. Towndrow welcomes the legislative effort, she thinks it will take more than amending the law to create an inclusive society for transgender people. “There will be lots of loopholes because our voice is so weak compared to larger groups. It's kind of like getting tossed a bone once in awhile.”
She advocates better education about transgender identity and hopes to see more transgender people represented in popular media. Until then, she will continue to work with Toronto's vulnerable communities at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, where she serves on the board of directors.