More than a rainbow sticker
May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT), an important occasion to check in with ourselves here at West Coast LEAF about how consistently and effectively we are challenging these oppressions every day in our work.
In September 2018, West Coast LEAF announced our expanded mandate to work towards justice and equality for all people who experience gender-based discrimination, not just those who identify as women. Bringing our work fully in line with that mandate will take continued work and learning.
We were grateful that Ari and Felix from WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre (who changed their name to Salal Sexual Violence Support Centre in 2023) met with our staff team last year to share some of what they have learned working on WAVAW’s Inclusion Project. This project focuses on ensuring that WAVAW’s sexual assault support services are relevant and welcoming to all trans, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and gender-diverse people. It began with three years of dedicated funding and is grounded in talking with and learning from community.
I was lucky to interview Ari, who provides specialized victim services through the Inclusion Project, and Felix, who coordinates the project.
Q: What led you to this work?
Felix: My history with WAVAW was [as] a volunteer on the crisis line. It was impactful, I loved it, it felt amazing. At the same time, it put me in a weird spot to be in this women’s space, doing feminist work, and having this feeling of, “Hey, maybe I don’t belong here” [because of gender identity]. I decided to transition, and I left WAVAW. This was not known to them, why I was leaving.
A couple of years after that, I [wrote] a post for a blog called Original Plumbing about whether trans masc people can access women’s services. I talked to a few different women’s organizations and the answer I largely got was, “We don’t know. We haven’t thought about this.” Some folks didn’t really understand the question. WAVAW was one of the folks I interviewed for that. Unbeknownst to me, there had been quite a bit of conversation internally about [trans inclusion at WAVAW]. At the end of the day, WAVAW decided to go for the funding to do [the Inclusion Project].
Ari: I’ve been involved with women’s organizations for many years. Most recently, I was working in the Downtown Eastside doing advocacy and being largely closeted, but it was kind of an open secret. I ended up serving a lot of the trans women and Two-Spirit folks and closeted people of other genders who were accessing the space.
It was really tricky because I didn’t want to out myself and lose my job, potentially. And I don’t know if that would have happened. But when I heard about what was happening at WAVAW, I was like, “I want to be a part of that,” because I think if an organization has the dedicated funding to do [trans inclusion work] in a really thoughtful way, it has the opportunity to create ripple changes.
Be open to the deeper changes, acknowledging that it will result in a more substantial change to your organization than simply the rainbow flag on the door.
Q: What did you learn from community that changed the way you carried out the Inclusion Project?
Felix: Everything! The standout piece for me when I first started doing community consultation, the first thing out of everybody’s mouth every time was, “You need to look at your position on sex work.” We had a lot of deep and difficult conversations about sex work, and in the end, [WAVAW] released a new position statement earlier this year, and we issued an apology to sex workers. That was when the community really started engaging with us and having a bit of faith in us—faith that a big established organization can change and can re-align itself with community.
Ari: I really see [the Inclusion Project] transform us in terms of becoming more low-barrier generally in an effort to serve trans feminine folks better. It spread to a lot of conversations about other communities we aren’t serving well. Like how can we improve our presence in the Downtown Eastside or to different communities of colour? I attribute [this transformation] to community. It’s just us listening.
Felix: Ari, I think the beauty of your position is that it’s shown us how this template of “Go to the hospital, go to the police, never see the person who assaulted you again” doesn’t translate to smaller communities, to queer and trans communities as well as immigrant communities, POC [people of colour] communities. Leaving that community often means leaving the roof over your head and the food you’re eating because that community is so connected and interdependent.
Q: What does the delivery of specialized services look like?
Ari: Folks seeking our services are given a choice. We don’t ask folks to provide their gender identity over the phone, we just say that trans, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse specific services are available, and if people choose to access that, they’re able to.
Felix: I think the key thing about offering these by-and-for services is recognizing that it’s so important to have trans people in these frontline roles, because there is zero best-practices work on sexual assault or anti-violence programs for trans people. So we’re really drawing on folks’ lived experience.
Q: What barriers exist in the legal system for trans, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and gender-diverse people?
Ari: The times that I have supported folks with the police, which are very rare within the Inclusion Project, the typical burdens on survivors when they’re reporting to police are often really exacerbated by misunderstandings about gender, misunderstandings about things like kink communities, queer relationships, and power dynamics.
Something else that I’ve been thinking about recently is […] civil liability for slander and defamation. [Learning more about this area of the law has] really raised a lot of questions about the community accountability processes that queer and trans folks use to keep themselves safe, and if that could turn into civil liability down the road.
Q: What action do you think is needed by feminist organizations to bring their work fully in line with trans inclusion?
Felix: Really the only way to make sure you’re doing it as deeply as you can is to be hiring [trans] folks.
Ari: Be open to the deeper changes, acknowledging that it will result in a more substantial change to your organization than simply the rainbow flag on the door.
Felix: You’ll note we don’t have one of those! (both laughing)
So my challenge to the feminist legal community would be thinking past what is currently available in the legal system, to pave the way for alternatives.
Ari: [Another important thing is] not homogenizing trans folks, and asking which trans folks’ voices are centred in work, and if voices are missing, how to reach out to them. And then actually listen.
Q: What can be done to make sure trans inclusion efforts are relevant to everyone, not just trans people with the greatest privilege?
Felix: In the community engagement work we did, we really focused on quality over quantity, really centring the most marginalized folks. And I also think it’s very important to be pushing up against [credential-based barriers in hiring]. So, when we’re talking about marginalized folks, they’re not going to have a master’s degree. Requiring that level of credentials is going to land you in the same spot of perpetuating the same [staff composition] over and over again.
Ari: In order to show folks that it’s going to be a not-terrible work environment, a lot of work needs to be done before. Organizations get reputations in community.
Q: What would solidarity from the feminist legal community look like?
Felix: What we’ve learned from Ari’s work doing victim services is that the legal system is not set up for queer and trans folks. So my challenge to the feminist legal community would be thinking past what is currently available in the legal system, to pave the way for alternatives.
Thank you, Ari, Felix, and WAVAW team, for being so generous with your time and insights. West Coast LEAF will keep pursuing deeper trans inclusion within our organization, guided by the knowledge you have shared.
Alana Prochuk manages education programs for West Coast LEAF. Alana has a large collection of queer punk music from the early 2000s and still enjoys busting it out for the occasional solo dance party.
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