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A Vital step for human rights in N.L.

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Soon some people whose assigned gender at birth does not correspond to their actual gender will be able to have their birth certificates and other government-issued identification amended to reflect their true identity.

On Wednesday a Crown attorney announced in a courtroom full of transgender and gender equality activists and allies that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will introduce legislation in the next sitting of the House of Assembly that will amend the province’s Vital Statistics Act so that people who identify as a gender that does not correspond to their sex can change that denotation—so long as it is male or female—on their government-issued I.D.

“It’s really great that the government seems to be in agreement with our argument, and that they’re going to commit to changing this and changing it not just for me but for all trans people,” Kyra Rees told media on the steps of the Supreme Court of N.L. in St. John’s Wednesday morning.

Early last year Rees applied to have her birth certificate amended to reflect her actual gender, but was denied.

Six months ago her lawyer, Kyle Rees, filed an application to have the province’s Vital Statistics Act amended so that his client and other transgender people living in the Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have to face discrimination and endure hardship and suffering when they are asked to provide identification for health care services, travel and other government and non-government services.

Kyra Rees speaks to media outside the Supreme Court of N.L. Wednesday after a Crown attorney announced the government would put forth a bill to amend the Vital Statistics Act to allow transgender people correct the gender denotation on their birth certificates. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Kyra Rees speaks to media outside the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John’s Wednesday. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

He said the amendment to the Act will bring the statute in compliance with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and will bring Newfoundland and Labrador up to par with other provinces like Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, where similar legislation is already in place.

Kyle Rees also said Wednesday’s announcement shows that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador recognizes its laws, which currently require transgender people to undergo “transsexual surgery” before they can amend the birth-assigned gender on their government I.D., is “not correct; it’s not proper, and it’s harmful to people.”

The announcement comes five months after changes at the federal level that allow Canadians to self-identify on citizenship certificates obtained through Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

It also comes in the middle of St. John’s Pride Week celebrations—which, among other events, will feature a Trans March on Saturday afternoon—which Kyra Rees said is “definitely going to give energy to the rest of the week” and give people “something to cheer about at the trans march on Saturday.

“It will revitalize…this Pride Week and give it some new blood.”

Will the change go far enough? 

A transgender person is one who identifies as having a lived gender experience other than the one assigned at birth, which is generally—and often erroneously—based on a person’s biological sex.

Many transgender people do not identify within the cisnormative male-female binary, however, and instead identify as being somewhere else on the gender spectrum that more accurately reflects how they experience and understand themselves.

Despite the fact gender is now widely understood and increasingly accepted as being more complex and diverse, it is expected the amended Vital Statistics Act will still force people to identify within a male-female gender binary.

In some jurisdictions, movements are underway to have gender identity abolished from government-issued identification altogether.

Proponents of such measures argue that gender is a socially-constructed concept that fails to adequately describe or explain the diversity of human experiences, expressions and behaviours people have traditionally associated with biological sex, and therefore puts people in the situation of having to conform to, or be limited by, rules and policies informed and shaped by assumptions of cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and other ideas that by definition limit the scope and understanding of gender identity and, more broadly, what it means to be human.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal is currently reviewing complaints by the Trans Alliance Society and individuals who argue that certifying as true a gender identity that was assigned to children at birth, which may or may not be correct, is an act that often harms people later in life.

Asked by a reporter how she feels about the efforts elsewhere to have gender identity scrapped from government I.D. altogether, Kyra Rees said that move could very well be a “next step” for gender-related human rights causes in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“A victory for LGBTQ activists”

But for now a legislative change that will acknowledge sex and gender as two distinct categories of human identity and allow transgender folk who identify as male or female—but whose gender identities were erroneously certified at birth by government—is a positive step for human rights progress in this province, Rees indicated, saying she will soon be able to “travel freely” and “go out in public without having to worry about outing myself to strangers because I need to present I.D.

“It’s really liberating,” she said.

Kyle Rees said changing one’s gender on their birth certificate is “only one of dozens of issues that affect the trans community of Newfoundland and Labrador that need to be addressed,” and that he and his client are “happy to take those first steps.”

St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers has been advocating for gender inclusion and equality on a legislative level for some time now.

The NDP member was on hand for the announcement Wednesday and told reporters afterward that it was a “great victory” for the LGTBQ activist community and allies.

St. John's Centre MHA Gerry Rogers speaks to media outside the Supreme Court of N.L. on Wednesday. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers attributed the “victory” to the work of LGBTQ activists and said there’s still much to be done to achieve gender equality in Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“As we know governments have very rarely been leaders of change — it’s the people and the activists who push governments to do the right thing,” she said. “So today is a victory for LGBTQ activists the world over, and particularly here in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a day to celebrate the fine work, the persistent work, the wise work that activists have done.”

Rogers called the announcement “very significant,” but said it’s by no means the end of the struggle for equal human rights in this province for transgender people.

“It was only a year and a half ago that we had gender identity and gender expression explicitly included in our Human Rights Act,” she said. “So that then opens up a number of issues that affect trans folks here in the province.

“We need to look at what happens with their health care needs, which is a big problem here in the province,” she continued. “For instance, in order to get a diagnosis and assessment…to get medical treatment is not done here in the province.

“Folks are required to go out of province for these kinds of services. That’s not equal access to health care, so [now] we have that springboard that gives us that right to go after other services, policies and legislation that affects trans folks.”

Rogers said the fact the announcement came during Pride Week “is a celebration again of the activism of the LGBTQ community and our allies as well,” and a “culmination of years of hard work.

“And so it gives us one more reason to celebrate Pride, gives us one more reason to show why Pride Week is so very important, because there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Kyle Rees and Rogers both said they expect the government to act promptly to amend the legislation.

“We urge the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to convene a session in the House as soon as possible to make that change so other people don’t have to suffer the kind of harm that my client and other trans individuals in this province have had to suffer by not being able to get the identity documents they like,” said Rees.

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