Alberta GRS Diary and “Community”

(I have to apologize for mostly having to cover everything in a recap, rather than being able to cover everything as it happened.   It's possible that as a consequence some of the links may have become invalid as media phases out old news pages or moves them to members-only sections.)

10,000 people turned out for the Edmonton Pride Week parade and festival on the square on June 13th.  This doubled last year's attendance and proved so remarkable that almost no media outlets reported on the event.  This is how bittersweet in turmoil Alberta is these days: two months of introduction of obvious anti-LGBT policy (delisting of health care coverage of gender reassignment surgery, refusal to include gender identity / expression in human rights legislation,  Bill 44's evacuate-children-from-school-if-queer-people-are-discussed provision,  making conservative religious leaders the consultants of choice on things like Aboriginal communities or oil sands development) turned people out in droves, and was about as remarkable as any other business as usual.  That's the enigma of “community,” I suppose, and the way it comes together, vanishes and comes together again, all under the radar.

I'd been talking very negatively about the word “community” at the start of this year.  Very negatively.  The details aren't necessary at the moment, other than to say I'd been very shaken by some threats I'd received from within said community.  I'd shut down my blog for all intents and purposes, removed myself from trans and activist networks, and nearly left advocacy altogether.

Then, on April 7th, ironically a day that many regions set aside as the Trans Day of Empowerment, the Alberta Government delisted Health Care funding for Gender Reassignment Surgery.   And Albertans (trans and cis) taught me a thing or two about “community.”

[First, a little backgrounder for some of the non-Canadians who will be reading this blog.  Canada boasts universal health care.  The Canada Health Act is designed to ensure that medically-necessary procedures are covered and that Health boards conduct themselves with empathy, understanding and respect for Canadian citizens of all backgrounds.  GRS has historically cost the Province up to a maximum (in fact, it is only the past two years in which the quota has been reached) of $700,000 per year from a budget of over $13.4 Billion — an amount that works out to about 19 cents per taxpayer (a fraction of a percentage point of the health care budget).  Gender Reassignment Surgery is considered by all major medical bodies, American and Canadian, to be a medically-necessary procedure, and it is not unreasonable to hold the Provinces to that.  GRS is also something that other health providers make a specific exemption for, so in this case, there are few to no other options for funding, unlike other health issues.  The move was purely political, done without consulting the two specialists who deal with GID patients (or any other medical authority), and done without consideration for the community that would be impacted by its decision.]

Communities exist only so long as people are willing to contribute constructively to them.  Too often, they descend into political ambitions, cliques, sabotage, tokenism, irreconcilable differences of opinion and the selective cutting off of people from being “in the loop.”  All of this ends up dwarfing the intent of contributing to the community in the first place, and inevitably results in schism, people leaving in disgust, further solidifying of cliques, ill will and the splitting of cultures into communities of ones, at which point some might make achievements, but can still never match the effectiveness of a whole.  And yet, when the Government delisted funding for GRS on April 7th, the complexion of the trans community across the Province changed.

Some of that started with Facebook.  And I really hate Facebook.  Nevertheless, on April 7th, I accepted an invitation to join the “Reinstate Gender Reassignment Surgery Funding in Alberta” Facebook group,  and there I was, the 4th member.  “Huh,” I figured. “This isn't going to go anywhere” (although I still forwarded the invite to friends).  In two hours, there were over 350 members.  By evening, it was closing on 700.  Two days later, it seemed to plateau at 1200.  But then the media and allies started becoming aware of the situation.  At this time of writing, it's closing in on 2200 members.

I really hate Facebook.  And yet, I can't deny how effective it can be at mobilizing people at a distance.  On Tuesday April 14th, we staged a sit-in, some of us attending Question Period at the Legislature and others holding a demonstration outside, papering MLAs and visitors alike with brochures and information.  The following day, we filed Human Rights complaints en-masse, between Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer — an estimated 42 in total, ten of which were being filed either before or shortly after the event (to avoid the media frenzy).  On May 4th, we held a rally on the Legislature steps.  We joined Friends of Medicare in solidarity on a few occasions.  All of these were mobilized by Facebook.

But the real story came from transfolk.  We never had a shortage of people to refer media to.  EdmontonCalgaryLethbridgeRed Deereverywhere,  there were people willing to put their faces forward and tell their stories.  In each of the big cities, we had easily between 20 and 30 people who came out consistently to rallies.  We became real people to Albertans, and organizations like FoM and the Alberta Federation of Labour threw their support behind us in kind.  And the media listened.  The Calgary Sun, which once sensationalized a debate about a discussion to change the title “alderman” to the gender-neutral “councillor” with a headline of “Council Nixes Sex Changes,” had turned toward empathy.  A friend who was transitioning in the small-town of Nanton, Alberta found herself the focus of a groundswell of support from partner businesses that got together and pledged money to fund her surgery.  Even radio personality Yukon Jack, “redneck” and opinionated by reputation, boldly declared:

“OK, Johnny Hetero, roll with me on this one. You wake up tomorrow morning and all of a sudden you're a woman.  Everything about you mentally, emotionally is male. You like to fight, spit, swear, drive truck, crush beers and belch. You are a man … man.

But physically you are a woman. Well, after a week of playing with your boobs, it would be terrible. Your life would be ruined. There would be no getting used to it. You would suffer depression, anxiety and stress about everything you ever do, and would have difficulty keeping a job.

…This isn't cosmetic. A nose job, boob job, lipo, botox or collagen. This isn't something they've done to themselves, like lung-cancer-smoker guy, or severe-head-wound-quad-riding guy, liver-disease-alchoholic guy, or tanning-salon-skin-cancer girl….”

Community.  We found it amongst ourselves, and amongst the larger population of everyday Albertans — both from that defeatist 63% that feels like there's no use in voting, and many from that 37% that did and will be choosing differently next time.

On April 7th, we were vulnerable.  We had no community organizations officially formed for advocacy, no definitive voices, just an information website that sounded kind of official-ish and a few people here and there that some local agencies knew of and pointed inquires to.  We had no cohesive way of organizing a Province-wide petition, we had two major cities (two of Canada's five largest) with only a couple people who really knew more than one or two advocates in both, we had no formal face to network with ally organizations.

The community at large had resisted organizing previously, for fear that rocking the boat would cause GRS to be delisted, organizers were shouted down and shunned into exile, and there had been overwhelming distrust and sabotage of any attempt to unify people.  I'd tried it myself two years prior, in a Town Hall that triggered two months of endscene from Julius Caesar — two months before leaving Edmonton of wondering who would be next to stick the knife in (and ever since, whenever the knives come out, I have to fight to avoid succumbing to paranoia).

When GRS was delisted, we were unorganized, and paid the price for it in terms of missed opportunities and lack of a go-to organization to rally and direct allies while they were freshly interested and eager to help.  We needed a cohesive voice, and we needed it on April 8th.  A month later, we still didn't have that together.  Three months later, well… we're just about there.  Which is frustrating, but also apparently typical.

So what we did those first two months, we did together, voluntarily, a community that acted like a community.  Communities exist only so long as people are willing to contribute constructively to them.  And contribute people did.  Unfortunately, that level of commitment is incredibly difficult to sustain.

Two months later, we arrive at Pride.  Edmonton and Lethbridge started their events on the same weekend (Calgary's is scheduled for early September).  Although they're six hours apart (and double that, considering that we started and ended in Calgary), my partner and I attended both.

Lethbridge is an enigma.  Close to the U.S. border and Alberta's Mormon belt, the city is divided along racial lines, especially with regards to the large Native population.  LGBT people in that city are very much closeted, occasionally slipping out to meeting places hidden on the edges of town.  There is much fear and homophobia in Lethbridge.  On Friday, June 12th, the City of Lethbridge hoisted a Pride flag that stayed aloft all weekend, during an evening ceremony.  200 people came out, a startling number in a closeted city.  There were only a few who were trans, but that number included people I'd never met nor heard from (to my knowledge) before.

Edmonton's parade was much larger, but then GLBT folks have largely been “out” for a little longer.  Over 400 people turned out to participate in the parade.  Watchers lined over 12 blocks, and were thick along the sidewalks.  Attendees flooded onto the boulevard down the centre of Jasper Avenue when the sidewalk space ran out.  10,000 people attended in all, which has to be a new attendance record.

Our group held signs that read “Reinstate Funding for Gender Reassignment Surgery.”  These signs were the larger versions of the 8 1/2″ x 11″ ones we'd handed out to other willingly supporting floats and personalities throughout the parade, in an effort to ensure that recent events weren't forgotten.  And there we were, marching — all 4 of us.

Community confounds me.  Don't get me wrong: I respect stealth.  I get that most of us don't want to be on the evening news (although as it turned out, that was never a risk at Pride this year), but I had seen large numbers of us who considered funding to be more important.  And yet the groundswell of a little over a month ago evaporated on Saturday, leaving my partner and I, and a couple of dear friends who choose to join us over other invitations to participate in the parade that they'd received.  As much as I appreciate the couple that came with us and about 4 others I know of who couldn't get out of other commitments, I have to scratch my head and wonder what happened to community.  Did I become “the enemy” to everyone again, or did news that members of a group named “TESA” would be marching lull everyone into complacency, thinking “oh good, it's looked after?”

For every disappointment, though, there was also a moment to take heart.  We followed a van along the route.  As the parade lurched forward, we'd appear from behind it to a new group of watchers — it would take them a minute or two to read the signs (“Reinstate Funding for Gender Reassignment Surgery” is such an eyeful), and then the spark of recognition would light up their faces and the crowd would start cheering.  Wildly.  Emphatically.  Almost to a person.  10,000 people let us know that they appreciated us and supported us, this tiny community with persistent stragglers that won't go away.

It's been a rollercoaster few months.  At times, it looked like the momentum was with us and we'd overturn things; we'd take that momentum beyond.  Other times, the picture looked dark, dark as it gets, and moving seemed the only reasonable solution (although I have to admit, there are certainly worse places to be). I don't know yet how the rest of this is going to play out.  Certainly, with the leap to the extreme right that this government has taken in the past couple months,  we can expect more of the same in legal and health care changes when the Alberta Legislature reconvenes in October.  How we respond is up to the community.

Or organization.  I alluded to a community organization in progress (TESA).  It would be inappropriate right now to say much more than that it is experiencing some growing pains that I hope we can get past (as organizations typically go through).  But the experience of developing organization against the backdrop of a community coming together as it did in Alberta has opened my eyes about how the very principles of organization can run counter to community if we're not careful and diligent.

(I'd likewise commented on EgaleCanada in the context of my skepticism of top-down organizations in general, and how they empower (or not) their committees.  I owe it to Egale now to say that they have risen to the occasion in the situation in Alberta, and certainly their Trans Issues Committee Chair Mickey Wilson has represented them well.  Credit when it's due.)

I like to think of myself as somewhat altruistic, advocate for everybody, everything now, no one left behind, nothing forgotten.  There is no room for personal differences in communal advocacy — they have to be set aside in order to not poison everything.  That's the lesson of community:  the deconstruction of borders, the coming together for mutual benefit, regardless of differences.  Organization's a little different, though, where suddenly you have to prioritize, allocate limited resources, get past the absolutes we've come to believe in for our own lives, in order to compromise. Decisions that exclude or postpone don't sit well with me, even if I understand the necessity.  I'm not talking about TESA specifically — this is the nature of organizations in general.

Which tells me that we need to do a little thinking on how we form and operate our organizations.

So there has been a lot of learning happening.  I'll be forever grateful to the trans and ally communities in Alberta for showing me the heights that community can reach.  I hope that regardless of organizational status, we'll remember that we need to keep doing acting as a community, because it is these moments — the personal efforts and stories that change hearts and minds — in which we can accomplish true and lasting change.

(Crossposted to DentedBlueMercedes)

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