Trans rights primer

Imagine being told that the clothes you are wearing aren't appropriate for your gender. Think about what it would be like to be ridiculed on the job, exposed to daily harassment because you may not conform to some people's definition of masculinity and femininity. Imagine if every trip to the bathroom felt like a trial – exposing you to potential humiliation or violence.

These are some of the issues that transgender workers face on the job and in their communities every day. And because PSAC believes in standing up for the human rights of all workers, we are committed to the struggle for gender justice.

In recent negotiations with Treasury Board and other employers, PSAC put forward a demand to add gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. While these provisions are specifically designed to protect trans workers, they also have the potential to protect anyone who doesn't fit into societal expectations of what makes a “man” or a “woman.”

Right to self-definition

Gender identity refers to a person's inner sense of being male, female or something in between. Gender expression refers to the way that people physically display their gender – often visible in the way they dress or groom themselves. Both gender identity and gender expression are separate from sexual orientation, which refers to who people are erotically and intimately attracted to.

Transgender or “trans” is often used as an umbrella term to describe people whose gender identity or expression does not conform to the physical sex they were assigned at birth. This category can include anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, who may not fit into established gender norms. Transsexual people are those who seek to change their physical sex to match their gender identity. This process is referred to as “transitioning.”

Trans issues are complex (ask a trans person – they'll likely agree!). Some trans people have adopted the above-mentioned definitions, and others have not. What's important is to allow people the right to self-identify. And as we struggle to come to terms with challenges to traditionally established notions of gender, we can rely on basic union principles to guide us.

Trans rights are workers' rights

We believe in everyone's right to dignity on the job. We believe in everyone's right to a safe and healthy workplace. We believe in workplaces free from harassment and discrimination. We believe in negotiating wages and benefits for all of our members. We believe in using our power to strengthen minority rights. And we know how to represent workers.

Trans people are workers, trade unionists and part of our movement. We know it's wrong for employers to fire people based on personal characteristics. We know it's wrong when one of our members is afraid to come to work for fear of coworker harassment and violence. We know it's wrong when employers deny one of our members access to benefits while providing it to others. We know it's wrong when any member faces ridicule on the job. We know it's wrong when employers leak private information about us. We know it's wrong when one of our members is afraid to turn to the union for help, for fear of being rejected. We know it's wrong when the majority stands silently by and watches a member suffer.

Supporting trans human rights isn't about bargaining ‘special rights' for trans people. Trans people certainly aren't asking for anything ‘special'– simply a safe place to work, a safe washroom or change room, the right to be called by their name, the right to accommodation, and the right to be referred to by their chosen gender – the same rights most people take for granted. However, in the case of trans members, special measures do need to be taken to ensure that basic rights are protected.

Below is a list of some of the issues that trans workers face on the job and in their broader communities:

Discrimination and harassment

Trans people are routinely discriminated against on the job – denied promotions, wrongfully dismissed, harassed and intimidated. Many others fear coming out at work and either delay their transitions or hide the fact that they have previously transitioned. Adding gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds for discrimination in collective agreements is one step in ensuring that this kind of harassment is no longer tolerated. It also opens the door to more pro-active education in the workplace on trans human rights issues.

Access to appropriate bathrooms and changing facilities

Like everyone else, trans workers need to use washroom facilities with safety and dignity. It is the employer's responsibility to provide safe washroom facilities to the worker during and after transition. The transitioning worker has the right to use the washroom that corresponds with their lived gender, whether or not they have sought or completed surgeries.

As trans activist Courtney Sharp says, “Employers who want to find solutions have found solutions. Those who do not want to find solutions tend to use the issue as an excuse to terminate the employee.”

On a temporary or permanent basis the worker may prefer to have access to a single-use bathroom (with a lock), to ensure their safety and dignity are maintained. The employer must accommodate this request. Employers and the union need to make it clear to all employees that trans workers have the right to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity, and that they expect everyone's cooperation.

The right to privacy

Trans workers have the right to privacy. Discussing a person's trans status or history without their explicit permission is considered a breach of privacy. “Outing” is understood to be a form of harassment that puts the worker's physical and emotional safety at risk.

Insurance coverage for necessary medical care

Many transsexual and transgender people continue to face discrimination and a lack of access to medically necessary services, including sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) and hormone therapy. Public funding for SRS is not guaranteed in every province. For example, the Ontario government cut off funding in 1998, and recently re-listed SRS under the provincial health plan.

The labour movement can help address this injustice by negotiating benefit coverage for the medical treatments required for transition. Trans people are not only being denied public health care for transition related expenses, but they are sometimes denied access to private health care benefits that are available to other members.

How to stand up for trans human rights in your workplace

  • Stop the harassment – don't be a bystander when offensive jokes, innuendos, or harassment take place.

  • Respect the way that people self identify. Use the pronoun and name they request. If you know someone is trans, respect their privacy and don't reveal their status to anyone else without explicit permission.

  • Listen to trans voices and educate yourself on trans issues.

  • Fight exclusionary policies that discriminate against trans people.

  • Participate in provincial and national trans human rights campaigns.

  • Understand that trans rights are human rights and worker's rights. Draw connections between your union's commitment to social justice and the struggle for trans liberation.

  • Talk with your bargaining committee about how we can better represent our trans members.

– Adapted from Workers in Transition, the Canadian Labour Congress. With information from the Trans Inclusion Policy Manual for Women's Organizations (Julie Darke and Allison Cope for the Women/Trans Dialogue Planning Committee and the Trans Alliance Society, Winter 2002); the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition.

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September 1, 2008