Best of Vancouver communities: Transitioning to a bright future
She’s big, she’s bold, and she may as well have brass balls. And you might as well get used to her because she isn’t going away.
She is Jamie Lee Hamilton, the public face of Vancouver’s transgender community.
Hamilton has run for MP, city council, and park board, and she says a lot of her political activism has aimed to lift the profile of transgender people across Canada.
Hamilton has been at the forefront of the transgender community, which, for the most part, is brought together through its members’ common fight for equality and medical rights. It’s from this struggle that the community has gathered strength and visible numbers, she says.
However, many transgender people don’t want to make a big deal out of their situation, preferring to get on with their lives like everyone else.
They say as the public becomes more educated about their situations, their lives become easier.
The city’s trans community began to open up in the early ’90s with the advent of the Zenith Foundation, a transgender support group that was involved in some activism, under the guidance of transsexual activist Stephanie Castle and others.
It was there that the community began to come out of the closet and fight for equality rights and protection from discrimination.
According to Jennifer Breakspear, executive director of Qmunity, the LGBT community centre in the West End, it’s hard to quantify how many transgender people live in the region.
“That takes us back to [sexologist Alfred] Kinsey and folks who wanted to quantify how many of us were gay,” Breakspear says.
Two basic terms in the community vocabulary are MTF for male-to-female transsexual people and FTM for female-to-male.
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Trans Alliance Society
The Trans Alliance Society was named community group of the year in the queer community’s Hero Awards this spring. Former chair Raigen D’Angelo was named volunteer of the year for her work on the society’s demand that gender identity and expression be protected from discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code.
While many may think such a group would only deal with issues relating to those born in a body of the wrong sex and seeking to remedy that through hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery, the society is far more inclusive.
It defines trans as including people who self-identify as transgender, intersex, two-spirit, cross-dressers, transsexuals, bi-gendered, pan-gendered, genderqueer, androgynous, third gender, female and male impersonators, and drag kings and queens, as well as people whose perceived gender or anatomic sex may conflict with their gender expression, such as masculine-appearing women and feminine-appearing men.
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Former Vancouver cop Roz Shakespeare, 58, has led no ordinary life, having saved fellow officers’ lives under fire, hunted killers, and guarded high-ranking dignitaries.
“I’m a trained killer. Don’t fuck with me,” she laughs.
Shakespeare began transitioning in 1995 while a detective, something some colleagues found hard to accept.
So, upon retiring from the Vancouver Police Department, she founded Vibrant Group, a diversity-training outfit that works to demystify the LGBT communities, and prepare workplaces for transgender people.
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Qmunity (1170 Bute Street), formerly known as the Centre, has been home to the Transgender Health Program in partnership with the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority since the closure of the Gender Clinic at Vancouver General Hospital in 2002.
But, says Breakspear, much of the program’s discussions of late have revolved around social issues. As a result, social support groups have been created to help members deal with “day-to-day living strategies”.
Breakspear says many of the issues transgender people have to contend with come about because how they choose to express their gender “doesn’t jive with how the average shmoe on the street perceives gender”.
She says the program also helps transgender folks deal with relationship issues which can often baffle straight folks. A man may transition to be a woman but remain attracted to women, for instance, Breakspear says.
“The essence of who they are doesn’t jive with what the body presents,” she explains. “It doesn’t change to whom they feel sexually attracted.”
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Vancouver’s venerable Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium (1238 Davie Street) manager Janine Fuller says many transgender people visit the Davie Street store looking for community resources.
“There’s certainly a lot of people who come into the store in various stages of their transition,” Fuller says.
The transgender section continues to grow in the store as more literature becomes available. Books include The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper; Transgender Rights, edited by Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang, and Shannon Price Minter; Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano; My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein; and The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio.
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The Trans Alliance Society has hosted two Gender Euphoria events in the past two years, attracting more than 700 trans people and their allies for full days of activities at Main Street’s Heritage Hall. The events offer booths, workshops, and information sessions focused on the trans lifestyle, followed by a drag show at night.
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With Shayne Forster, Jack Fox is a founder of T-Bodies Productions, which also puts on events for the trans community. Last year, they produced Manamorphosis, a trans guy calendar for 2009. It’s available at Little Sister’s.
Fox began transitioning three years ago, and says the social support networks for females transitioning to male bodies tend to be more under the radar than those for males transitioning to females. That’s due to discrimination and safety reasons, he says.
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Fox says there are plenty of gathering places he has enjoyed, such as the transgender youth programs at the Britannia Centre and those at the Raven Song Community Health Centre for transgender guys.
“It’s knowing you’re not alone in that process,” Fox says. “You’ve probably met someone who’s trans. You just didn’t know it.”
Fox also points to the Three Bridges Community Health Centre as a valuable gathering spot for the younger transgender community.
There, Pride Health Services offers medical and social support for transgendered people, and also the Boys R Us drop-in centre for male and transgender sex workers. The centre offers transgender people a safe place to connect with others, and social activities such as dinner and movies.
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Now in its 21st year, August’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival has long screened films about the joys and struggles of the transgender community in Canada and around the world. The festival functions not only as a place to see transgender films but also to meet other trans folks.
Best Place to be Virtually Trans
As is so often the case with today’s ever-burgeoning on-line world, there are virtual communities such as Gender Blender for transgender people. Gender Blender lists events, conferences, community links, discussions, and acts as a meeting place for transgender people not only in Vancouver but across the province.