Hamilton’s long journey toward real equality by Aidan Johnson

The Ontario Human Rights Code states that people are equal, irrespective of their gender identity or gender expression. This means that transgender and cisgender people deserve to be treated as equal in dignity, because they are. ("Cis" means non-transgender. The Latin prefix "cis" means "on this side of." A cisgender person thus identifies with the gender associated with his/her biological sex, whereas a transgender person does not. By analogy, "cis" is to "trans" as "straight" is to "gay.")

This past year, two incidents in Hamilton highlighted how far we are from full realization of equality.

In the first, an HSR employee interfered with a trans woman's attempt to use the bathroom at our city-run MacNab Bus Terminal. The woman was very upset. She filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Throughout, it was clear that the plaintiff's concern was not for money, but for the principle of human dignity.

In working on this matter, I consulted informally with several trans people — informally, because Hamilton does not yet have a formal trans community association. I also performed many hours of research on the relevant political and legal topics. This included a review of trans equality jurisprudence — much of this written by trans people themselves.

As a lawyer (not representing the City of Hamilton, but serving, rather, as Ward 1 councillor), I was able to help our city legal team craft a settlement. The settlement saved the city a costly litigation process. Hopefully, it also communicated the city's commitment to trans citizens.

In the second troubling incident, the private sector company contracted by the City of Hamilton to arrange HSR advertisements posted an anti-trans ad in our public bus shelters. (This was contrary to a long-standing city advertising policy.) I moved at council's August council meeting for city staff to take all necessary steps to ensure that ads violating the rights of any marginalized group are never posted on city property again. Council supported this unanimously. (In particular, I am grateful to Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who seconded the motion.)

Council's decision attracted some bitter backlash. Ezra Levant — a national pundit — argued on his show that the city violated the free speech rights of the group behind the ad. But the city has a clear obligation, to ensure that our bus shelters are not used as a tool of vilification and exclusion. (As a person who rides the bus most days, I value this a lot.)

Levant also suggested that the council motion is wrong-headed because trans women are actually men. Levant is wrong on both the law and the facts. Every leading health organization, e.g. all three of the Canadian medical, psychological, and psychiatric associations, have recognized the reality of gender identity and called for an end to anti-trans discrimination. As U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder ruled on Aug. 23 this year, in a case on trans rights in North Carolina: "The unrefuted evidence in the current record suggests that jurisdictions that have adopted accommodating bathroom access policies have not observed subsequent increases in crime."

Ironically, Levant earned his fame in punditry as a libertarian — one who believes in freedom and minimal government. I am not a libertarian. But I deeply respect the many libertarians who argue that the state has no business policing people's gender identities.

I would like to thank Ezra Levant for bringing national media attention to Hamilton — an increasingly progressive city.

Council's recent work on trans rights has also inspired reaction from Colleen McTigue, a trans rights advocate. McTigue responded in a thoughtful piece published on the Spec op-ed page on Aug. 23.

McTigue is very right that consultation with marginalized communities, including trans people, is essential for good government. She is also right that we have a long way to go before we achieve true equality. That day cannot come soon enough. As a cis person, and as an ally to the trans community, I recognize that the voice and perspective of trans people has to be front and centre.

Working to make Hamilton a welcoming and inclusive place for trans people is a vital part of making the city a better place for everyone. I have scheduled a meeting with McTigue, in order to discuss the needs of trans people in the city. I'm looking forward to that meeting.

In the meantime, I am honoured to be working with trans and cis citizens alike in the building of a fairer community.

Published in the September 13, 2016 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.