“We should send Senator Don Plett a thank-you card.”
That sentiment was expressed by Amanda Ryan, a member of an Ontario transgender social and support group called Gender Mosaic that had some input on Bill C-279 as it made its way through the House of Commons and into the Senate.
Indeed, a lot of transgender people are thanking Mr. Plett, albeit facetiously, in the wake of his controversial amendment to the bill, which would have modified the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to protect gender identity.
His amendment derailed the bill, many charge, and the resulting outrage by the transgender community and widespread media coverage has raised awareness about transgender issues, Ryan says.
“We have gained a great deal through this. Plett’s amendment inadvertently drew a lot of very positive attention to the trans community,” she said.
Others, no doubt, will be thanking him, too: conservative anti-LGBT organizations may see it as a small victory for their fundamentalist belief systems and traditional family values.
But who really should get the blame or credit (depending on your viewpoint) for the death of Bill C-279?
Many people point the finger at Senator Plett, with various conspiracy theories that all culminate with him delaying the bill’s passage in the Senate to the point of its death when the session broke for the summer and a federal election is called in the fall.
Some believe Senator Plett has been a good soldier acting on behalf of Conservatives in the House of Commons. Others believe he is just plain transphobic. But evidence of a plot by Senator Plett to derail Bill C-279 is circumstantial at best. Nobody can prove anything.
Senator Plett adamantly denies that he deliberately set out to derail the bill. And he just as adamantly denies that he is transphobic. Au contraire, Senator Plett says he supports transgender rights and sees the need for aforementioned protections.
Senator Plett had one concern about the parameters of who is transgender and who isn’t, and he introduced an amendment to Bill C-279 that would give some leeway and legal protection to people who run various federal institutions so that they could use their judgment on a case-by-case basis.
In all likelihood, they might never find themselves in the position of having to turn someone away because they suspected that individual was not a transgender person and was up to no good.
But legal protection would have been there for them if Bill C-279 had passed with Senator Plett’s amendment — just in case.
Senator Plett says he was never trying to stop transwomen from using women’s facilities or transmen from using men’s facilities, despite media reports to the contrary and the bathroom protest movement — dubbed #plettputmehere — started by Brae Carnes of Victoria, British Columbia.
He said on more than one occasion that after passage of Bill C-279 with his amendment, transwomen would continue to use the women’s facilities in federal institutions that they currently use.
In other words, he was echoing Toby’s Act of Ontario, which is guided by the “lived gender experience” principle: If you live as a woman 24/7, you use women’s facilities. Vice versa for a transmale.
The problem for Senator Plett was, in his words, about “…a large biological male with no intention of physically transitioning. That person has every right to identify as a female, but this individual’s presence would clearly cause more concern in a women’s-only space than someone like (Liberal) Senator Mitchell described (an attractive transwoman like Brae Carnes).”
The issue was about passing, and quite possibly in his mind, about weekend cross-dressers who present as males the rest of the time.
Should they have the right to be using women’s facilities some of the time, and men’s facilities the rest of the time? How could you define their lived gender experience?
The parameters of transgenderism and the current wave of gender fluidity were just too vague for Senator Plett, and the people he was speaking for — including women’s groups and individuals.
No doubt, Senator Plett heard from a lot of women who supported his amendment to Bill C-279, and a lot of women who didn’t want to see Bill C-279 passed at all. As I wrote about some of the Bill C-279 issues for my Gazette blog, I heard from some of them as well.
Most didn’t seem to have a problem with gender-transitioned women using women’s facilities. But they had visions of “big, hairy guys in grandma’s old dress and a cheap wig” accessing their spaces, perhaps on a lark. They wanted some level of protection — though, the irony of all this is that Bill C-279 and the contentious amendment only applied to federal institutions, not places like the local gym.
Many women were afraid, and they felt their concerns were being shouted down and drowned out by trans activists. I’ve seen this fear repeatedly expressed in articles and have heard it from some of my female readers over the years.
Did the transgender community address their issues properly? Did the transgender community reach out to these women? (I don’t know the answer to those questions.)
So, what exactly was the problem with the amendment for the Bill C-279 stakeholders, as the Senate Liberals referred to them? How would it affect transgender people in Canada if it had been passed with Senator Plett’s amendment?
Says Amanda Ryan: “This bill will have far less practical impact than Ontario’s law, for instance, because it only affects federal jurisdictions. Those being federal buildings, airports, prisons and I suppose military bases. It will not affect mom and pop shops, schools or any other provincial or municipal buildings. So its scope is far more restricted than the provincial laws.
“The big problem, though, as I see it, is the message that this bathroom amendment sends to Canadians everywhere. Because it is a Canadian law, it will carry more weight in the minds of Canadian citizens. And that weight will say that it is OK to discriminate against trans people.
“In Ontario, there have been some human rights cases fought at the Tribunal. There have been a lot more cases that were settled long before they got to the Tribunal because employees and people looking for housing could point to a law that said you cannot discriminate. Many companies started policies because the law was in place.
“But if a company starts a policy based on the federal law, they will have restrictions on employees using bathrooms. This just sends the message that there is something wrong with us. That we are dangerous and to be feared. Not true, but the law will reinforce that perception.”
Were Amanda’s concerns realistic? Well, the stakeholders thought so, and there was no way they were going to support the amended bill — even if it meant that transgender people would lose out on other protections they would have received.
The fear that some people outside of federal institutions might discriminate against some transgender people — specifically, as Senator Plett put it, “large biological male(s) with no intention of physically transitioning” — was enough to reject his amendment.
What about the Senate Liberals, who were sponsoring the bill in the Senate? In media reports, they pointed the finger at Senator Plett for holding up the bill, who in turn pointed the finger back at them, saying they were holding it up by not agreeing to his amendment and by introducing an amendment of their own seeking to overturn his.
Meanwhile, Liberal senators were handcuffed by a Conservative-dominated Senate and by the Senate system itself that rendered them impotent.
Did they ever think about accepting Senator Plett’s amendment in the spirit of compromise, with the belief that the passage of Bill C-279 would benefit trans people across the country while maybe — just maybe — negatively affecting a few?
No. They took their marching orders from their stakeholders, which included members of Gender Mosaic, the transgender social and support group, as well as organizations like Egale, the CJA, Amnesty International, legal council and, of course, Randall Garrison, the NDP MP who introduced the bill in the House of Commons.
Could the Senate Liberals have done more? Well, off the record, one member of the Liberal camp told me that in hindsight, they could have been more proactive, though I am not sure what they could have done given the Senate system.
So, who is to blame for the failure of Bill C-279 in the Senate?
The majority of trans people will point to Senator Don Plett. It’s his fault, as far as they are concerned — and the prime minister’s fault if Senator Plett was taking his orders from him.
But some trans activists who did not participate in the process wonder if Gender Mosaic and some of the others involved should have been representing Canadian transgender people in this process.
They feel the federal rights of the vast majority of trans people were sacrificed because of the fears of “stakeholders” who didn’t really have much of a personal stake in Bill C-279.
And why wasn’t Bill C-279 clear enough in the first place, like Toby’s Act in Ontario?
Whether you believe Senator Don Plett deliberately set out to derail Bill C-279 or, in fact, had a genuine concern about the parameters of transgenderism that he felt had to be addressed, one thing is certain: The Senate system allowed the bill to be delayed time and time again, while everyone there simply shrugged and said “That’s just the way it is, baby.”
The Senate, though composed of Liberals and Conservatives, is a single unit, and its players are one team supposedly working on behalf of all Canadians. Thus, as a team, the Senate let transgender Canadians down by not getting the job done, just as a hockey team loses together even though one player’s mistake may have cost them the game.
Such is the nature of the Canadian Senate, and it is yet another reason why it should probably be abolished. Bill C-279 would be law now if the Senate did not exist.
The biggest irony in all of this is Bill C-279 was largely irrelevant in the first place. Most transgender Canadians are protected from discrimination under provincial laws, and most federal institutions have policies in place that respect the rights of transgender people.
But the silver lining to the whole debate over Bill C-279 may very well be what Amanda pointed out at the start of this column: It raised awareness about transgender issues through media coverage across Canada.
And for that, transgender people can thank everyone involved in the process, not just Senator Plett.
No doubt, Bill C-279 will reappear in the House of Commons again in some form, and it will probably address the issues Senator Plett raised. And no doubt it will be passed by the House again, this time with no holes in it that Senator Plett and his Conservative allies can challenge.
And then there will be no excuses for the Senate not to get the job done — if the Senate still exists.
— Jillian Page, LGBT Perspectives editor
“Let harmlessness be the keynote of your life.” — Alice Bailey