When Gayle Roberts decided to transition from male to female back in 1995, she feared she would lose her job as a high-school physics teacher.
She didn’t—becoming the first teacher in the Vancouver school district to transition on the job. The transsexual woman recalls being “really surprised and really thankful” about the support she received from coworkers and students upon her return to the classroom the following year.
“Some of them had me as a teacher the previous year, and they treated me just the same as they did before,” Roberts, who’s now retired and lives in Tsawwassen, said during an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “Many of those students would come up to me and say, ‘I think you’re very brave.’ One came up to me and said, ‘You’re an inspiration.’”
Roberts is one of over a dozen trans people in Canada profiled in The Transgender Project, a documentary web series that saw its second season released in June. The online videos are being turned into a 10-episode television series set to air on ichannel and OUTtv this fall.
Kevin O’Keefe, senior producer for The Transgender Project, told the Straight the series features tales of “tremendous courage”. The journalist hopes it will promote compassion for trans people and raise awareness of their struggles.
“These people have had to overcome a lot of obstacles in their lives—everything from housing and employment and education and relationships to medical issues,” O’Keefe said by phone from Toronto. “A transition touches so many aspects of their lives.”
Like Roberts, Vancouver transgender-rights activist Marie Little, a former chair of the Trans Alliance Society, appears in both seasons of the series. One episode recounts how Little began living full-time as a woman after retiring from her job as a postal worker.
According to O’Keefe, author Marcus Greatheart writes in his 2013 book Transforming Practice that the top reason trans people delay or avoid transitioning is the negative stories they’ve heard. The producer noted the series shows that lots of transition stories do end happily.
“You’ll notice all the people in our series, when they transition and when they become, I guess, authentically themselves, their life actually improves,” O’Keefe said. “That was all real. We didn’t have to look very far to find positive transition stories. There was a lot out there.”
O’Keefe pointed out that The Transgender Project has benefited from the recent “wave of interest” in trans people. However, he asserted that much of the media coverage has been “problematic”, focusing excessively on the physical and medical aspects of transitioning.
“When we had trans people in the series and that was really important to them and that was a real important part of their transition, we included that in their story,” O’Keefe said. “And when it wasn’t, we didn’t. But usually the media coverage only ever focuses on that—genitals—and there’s a lot more to a person than just their genitals.”
Roberts explained that she participated in the series because there’s a “real need” for society to understand trans people. She coauthored the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s 2012 publication Supporting Transgender and Transsexual Students in K-12 Schools: A Guide for Educators and is working on a book of short stories and essays about trans issues and her life.
“For those people who are opposed to or don’t approve of transsexual people for a variety of reasons, I’m hoping that the series will get them to do more research about it and to better understand the nature of what transsexuality is, because it is important that those things occur,” Roberts said. “Because with that better understanding, society itself will be better.”
On July 20, Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for Vancouver–West End, reintroduced legislation seeking to enshrine protection for trans people in the B.C. Human Rights Code. Bill M 228 would add gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds for discrimination in the code.
According to Morgane Oger, current chair of the Trans Alliance Society, The Transgender Project is “fantastic” because it’s about “demystifying the trans experience”. The Vancouver activist told the Straight that productions like this are helpful in the fight for transgender rights.
“The more things there are portraying trans people in normal, positive roles and that talk about the challenges and the triumphs,” Oger said by phone from Paris, “the better-off all trans people will be and, therefore, the better off society will be.”