The words below have been adapted from an interview with Susan Gapka, which took place on November 17, 2017. Pride at Work Canada would like to extend our immense thanks for all community members who continue to do inspiring work, which changes our world for the better.
Today marks the 18th annual Trans Day of Remembrance, which began to commemorate the death of Rita Hester – a trans woman whose murder remains unsolved to this day. Trans Day of Remembrance commemorations and celebrations happen all over Canada, and should be events driven by and for trans communities. Gwendolyn Ann Smith started this day, not just to mourn the loss of Rita Hester but also to commemorate the lives all of trans people who have been lost to violence. This year alone we have lost over 2,000 trans people (and this only counts trans people who were out in some capacity). In the United States, there has been a spike in hate-related violence towards trans people. Trans Day of Remembrance doesn’t just focus on trans people who have been murdered, but also commemorates the lives of those lost due to suicide and overdose.
In marking such a day it is important to think about the people who are the most impacted by violence such as abuse and assault, but also more implicit violence such as lack of access to employment and stable housing. On this day, and every day, we must take into consideration the lives of the trans people most impacted by all forms of violence; the lives of trans women of colour, Indigenous trans and two-spirit people, and Latina and Black women of colour. Ensuring that Canadian work environments change to include trans people at every level can impact change to ensure that no more names are ever added to this seemingly ever-growing list.
Pride at Work Canada had the good fortune of sitting down with Susan Gapka, one of the women behind Canada’s changing human rights landscape. An outspoken and engaged political activist, Susan joins us today to talk about how things have changed, what still needs to change, and meaningful ways to engage with trans communities and issues on this 18th Annual Trans Day of Remembrance, and every other of the 364 days in the year.
Why is being politically involved important for you? What started your journey?
For me, political activism has been an important part of my journey around healing and recovery. Healing from the structures I grew up in; the structures that treated me and others like me like criminals for just being who we were. Growing up on a military base, there was a lot of authority as you can imagine. Without getting too personal, I grew up in a traumatic household and felt shame and guilt around who I wanted to be. So I covered it up. When I was finally able to achieve my authentic self, and through this continued journey, having political involvement to change institutions and legislation, like the Ontario Human Rights Code in 2012 and with Bill C-16 in the summer 2017 to amend the Canada Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds, was so important to that continued healing. These things also help give me a good sense of confidence around who I have become.
After years of painful self-harm, which is often part of many transsexual peoples’ narratives, being an individual who was recognized with respect and dignity was crucial to my healing and this was an empowerment that I wanted to share with others. Being politically active gives me a sense of confidence and joy, which is indescribable. It is so beautiful for me that for some, I am a role model. Some of my greatest joy is seeing trans youngsters, young people, and gender fluid kids being raised by families who love them.
For me, change is a part of life, change is part of the world. And while all this change happens, we must be mindful of who we may be leaving behind and isolating through technology. One significant change is that now some people are able to locate and connect to trans communities through technology, while others are losing jobs and access to communities because of technology.
Have you seen things change over your years of political involvement? If so, how? And what hasn’t change?
Another area that I have noticed a tremendous amount of change is in regards to language. There are changes in how people label themselves and how they identify. I see changes in how families are interacting with children and young people. There is a greater emergence of non-binary and gender fluid identities. Originally, a lot of focus was on those of us who experienced extreme discomfort with their bodies and wanted to change who they were, in a sense, transition (to cross over) sex and gender. Now things have opened up to create space for people who don’t identify within the gender binary. And just as I have driven change about how I wish and expect to be treated, I want to respect those around me who identify differently than I do. There has been such a change in conversations around gender expression and thinking about that through a human-rights approach.
The other changes include social acceptance and inclusion. While there have been some changes in Canada for some people, this cannot be generalized for trans communities. When we think about how things have changed, we need to take an intersectional analysis to fully understand the complexity of our social environment. What has changed for some white trans people, has not necessarily changed for two-spirit Indigenous communities or for Black and Latinx communities. There is a gap between some of us based upon ethnicity, race, religion, ability, social location and so on.
When thinking about the social determinants of health, we need to think about who has access to housing, employment, healthcare, etc. Education often emerges as a fundamental component giving us so many skills to use in the workforce. Having access to employment means that so much more is available to people in an economic society. It means you have a greater potential for stable housing, healthcare, education and social inclusion.
When thinking about change, we should also be thinking about the life experiences of trans and non-binary communities. People are coming out at younger ages, and we are living longer. What does this mean for young people who have never had to “come out” in the same way or who have had access to hormones and surgeries from a younger age? Trans experiences are changing, with young trans people socially integrating in ways that older trans communities could hardly dream about. This will change the life span and experience of trans people in more profound and meaningful ways.
What do you feel still needs to change for trans communities?
Identity documents and how sex is assigned at birth, the medicalization of bodies and the connection to how this impacts who we are considered in life. People should be able to be their authentic self, and feel an internal sense of who they are as legitimate. Laws are changing to provide people opportunity to self identify on legal documentation. There is a move away from using m/f (male/female) to woman/man and X. These changes provide people the space to self identify, but this change has not happened evenly. Different jurisdictions have modernized but this has not been evenly implimented. This lack of harmonization impacts non-binary communities unevenly in ways that it doesn’t necessarily impact binary trans individuals.
What can work environments do to drive and support political and structural change for trans communities?
When I came out, my employment options were limited – I could either work in a bar as a drag queen, work as cook, or engage in sex work. Each of these professions had their own drawbacks and risks. Sex work, for example, has its own set of risks often because it is criminalized. It is because of social stigma and criminalization that sex workers are at risks of greater levels of violence directly and systemically.
When I was younger, trans peoples’ employment often centred around the entertainment industry but we now see a demand on employers that they become trans inclusive. Trans communities are demanding access to more and different employment opportunities, housing, and healthcare. Employers should recognize this shift and create environments that welcome and include trans people instead of continuing barriers which exclude trans people. This will help give us a sense of hope that may not have existed before. And the best way to do that is to hire trans people themselves to help create those environments!
As we’re speaking days before Trans Day of Remembrance and Trans Day of Resilience, what is one thing someone reading this could do on either of those days to truly honour and support trans communities?
The Trans Day of Remembrance started as a way to commemorate trans people and our brutal and violent deaths. Our deaths were often driven by hate shown through extreme violence. Trans people aren’t shot once or twice, but 10 or 20 times. And that is hard for trans communities; we see our future taken away from us; like a candle being extinguished. If you know a trans or non-binary person, in your workplace, social or family life, just simply be their friend and be supportive. Show us empathy and care. Believe me, we will appreciate it and remember you well.
To follow some of Susan’s work, check out the Trans Coalition Project
For more information about the Trans Day of Remembrance, please visit