Women Transforming Cities joined the Pride Human Rights conference in Winnipeg from June 1-3, 2022 and presented a panel titled “Being Visible, Local to Global.” Speakers Serena Jackson, Joy Masuhara, and Ellen Woodsworth each spoke. The following is a condensed version of their speeches.
“Visibility is tough and complicated for me, as it is for many queer folks. Non-binary people can look however we want; we don’t owe the world androgyny. Some days I feel most like myself in slacks and with my chest bound under a button-down shirt, and other days I feel great in a floral dress. Regardless of how I present myself on any given day, I’m very likely to be misgendered by strangers and even people who know and love me, and correcting someone when they misgender me means outing myself and may mean challenging those who have more power than I do.
The risk assessment and cost/benefits analysis is something I’m sure all queers are familiar with - do I choose the certain discomfort of being called something I don’t identify with, or do I choose the potential harm that might come if the person reacts in a transphobic way? If I’m being honest, most of the time I go with the former.
That being said, I’m trying to be unapologetically myself as much as possible, and I’m grateful my day job supports that. I’m a youth mental health support worker in East Van, and I primarily work in a transitional housing program with queer and trans youth who are exiting homelessness. The young people I work tend to feel more comfortable around me once they learn that I’m queer and trans, and they know that they can have honest and open conversations with me around figuring out their identities.
When we show up as our authentic selves, we signal to queer young people that it’s okay for them to do the same. These days there are more and more queer and trans role models out there in film and tv, in the music industry, and on social media, and that is awesome. It’s also super important for queer and trans youth to see queer and trans adults in real life. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to every queer out there for being yourself and carving out the spaces so that the young queers who come after you can do the same.
What's happening in places like Florida and Ohio, especially around gender non-conforming kids, is super messed up and scary. And it could happen here too. There are many ways it can really suck to be a trans person in Canada, to varying degrees based on where you live.
There is still a long way to go for trans rights in Canada, and the difference between sexual orientation rights and trans rights is one of legal protections vs legislation. Legal protections aren't sufficient. The courts alone cannot grant us equal access to health care, including gender affirming care; access to services varies widely based on location. The courts alone also can't give us decriminalization of sex work, funding for community services, or solutions to homelessness, all of which have a disproportionate impact on trans people.
Trans people are overrepresented in rates of mental illness, homelessness, and poverty, especially among youth and seniors. This doesn't happen because people are trans, it happens because of systemic inequities and transphobia.
Some concrete actions each of us can take every day to move trans rights forward:
Normalize using non-gendered language, including pronouns. If you don't know a person's pronouns, consider using "they/them" until you do. For example, try saying "someone left their umbrella" on the bus. Other people hearing this helps them get used to non-gendered language.
Push for legislative changes for systemic solutions to the above noted inequities. This can improve life for everyone, regardless of gender! It's important to advocate for improvements throughout the entire province and country (and globally too!).
Pay attention to school boards and advocate for SOGI (sexual orientation+gender identity) education. People with more means and who are less progressive tend to have more time/access to involvement at school boards, whether as a parent/caregiver/community member or when running for trustee positions.
Support trans people working for change, support trans owned/operated businesses and support trans artists.
Speak out when you see or hear transphobic language and actions in person and online.
Support organizations working to support the trans community, with your money or your time if you can.
I am very heartened and hopeful that the world will continue to get better. At Winnipeg Pride this weekend, I saw so many kids and families among the hundreds(!) of people at the Trans March. There is reason for hope, and there is reason to continue demanding justice.” - Serena Jackson
“Hi I’m Joy, pronouns she/her. I’m a cis-gender lesbian, I’m a 3rd generation Japanese Canadian settler from Vancouver. Being visible as a person who identifies as a racialized lesbian, is always a challenge. In some cases you are too visible when things might be dangerous, at other times you are invisible when you need to be heard.
Being visible in ways that can improve the world for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, and apologies but for the purposes of this talk, I am going to use the shorter form of Queer, is something I have been trying to do both locally and globally over many years.
When I first came out back in the 90’s, my own internalized homophobia kept me mostly invisible. This improved slowly and I had to deal with it, particularly after joining the legal challenge in 2000 for marriage rights for queers. Talk about coming out publicly in a big way and being visible.
In BC there were 8 couples who were litigants and the “faces” of the campaign. EGALE organized a part of the campaign and we had a variety of ages and genders represented. I was the only racialized person, and got more attention from multicultural media.
We were visible, we spoke up, we prepared ourselves for media, we went to court and we won.
The provinces where court cases had been launched, BC, Ontario and Quebec, were able to start marrying queer couples in 2003, and yes I got married, and then later divorced. We won that right too. In 2005, after review in the Supreme Court of Canada, a federal law was passed changing the definition of marriage to be between any two persons, instead of between a man and a woman, and Canada became the 4th country in the world to legalize queer marriage. We became visible globally.
There are now 30 countries around the world that have legalized queer marriage. We still have a ways to go, when we think there are still over 70 countries in the world where homosexuality is still illegal, and 8 where it is still punishable by death. Places where for many, being queer, means unfortunately, needing to be invisible.
So, thinking about visible ways in which we work, in the local context, I have been engaged in equity, diversity and inclusion work within health care. This environment is still a white cisgender patriarchal, hierarchical system. But at least I’m working in Vancouver, where the environment is generally supportive, and not Abu Dhabi, which Ellen will tell you about later.
I have stepped into a newly created role of Regional Medical Director for DEI, and have been completely out during the whole process of applying for the job, during my interview, etc. This work has included exploring the experience of queer medical staff in the health care system, and making recommendations to improve inclusion and make the system more responsive to the needs of queer patients and staff.
We know we still have work to do, but being visible in the workplace, and in a leadership position, hopefully helps to move change. It seems to also have the effect of having others join in the work, both queers and allies, so I see this is one example of how we can work locally and use visibility effectively.
In terms of the global context, taking space and being visible as queers, has been more challenging. Women Transforming Cities has been working internationally since 2016 when we started engaging with UN Habitat, one of the UN agencies devoted to sustainable urban development. Despite working with other feminist organizations, queer groups, representatives from member states, and others, we were unable to get specific language around sexual orientation and gender identity or an intersectional lens on the outcome document to the Habitat III conference, the New Urban Agenda.
We were told that this type of language was not “family friendly” in the opinion of certain member states and therefore not included. This however, did not stop us from getting some visibility at the conference in Quito, and again, Ellen will discuss this in more detail.
There is a UN LGBTI Core group, which was established in 2008, and is an informal cross regional group of 39 UN member states including Canada, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and 2 NGOs, Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International. Their goal is to work within the UN framework on ensuring respect and human rights, protection from violence and discrimination for LGBTI persons.
They have not been involved with UN Habitat however, so in 2018, at the UN Habitat, World Urban Forum, a group of us who had met in Quito in 2016, formed a Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI) group and joined the General Assembly of Partners, which is a broad coalition of civil society organizations, organized into 17 groups. This coalition is still working with UN Habitat, and is the only formal mechanism where queer voices can work together and be heard, which continues to be challenging in these spaces.
Another way to be visible is online. WTC has launched a website that showcases Wise Practices that help to make cities more inclusive particularly from a gender perspective. This came out of work we did at the UN Habitat conference in 2016 and is called the Women Friendly Cities Challenge. This work is still in development, but it is a living library of Wise Practices from around the world. WTC acknowledges that the term “women” is a binary term that is non-inclusive, and we have had internal discussion around this.
For now, we have decided to keep the term for relatability to international audiences, and an acknowledgement that gender equality issues need to be contextualized to time and place, and language and other aspects of this work will continue to evolve.” -Joy Masuhara
Check out our Women Friendly Cities Challenge catalogue here.
“My name is Ellen Woodsworth I go by the pronouns of she/her/we. I live on the unceeded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh peoples. I am the founder and matriarch of WTC.
I would like to thank the Pride organization, translators, activists and allies and the financial support of the Federal government.
It has been a long fight to find freedom & visibility for 2SLGTBQIA++ peoples. Globally there is barely a glimpse of the rainbow plus black, brown and all our colours. COVID, war, economic disparities, the rise of the far right and climate change have set our freedom struggle back decades. Thousands of our people are being murdered each year and more attacked daily. Within our movement which is very diverse we have barely begun to recognize the power disparities created by gender, sexual identity, race, colonialism, age, class and ability as well as differences in power between those in the global north and those in the global south, those with homes and those who are refugees. This conference was a powerful statement with the voices of indigenous and metis two spirit people front and centre.
It has been a ongoing struggle to find acceptance of my gender identity and my sexual orientation which are inseparable from my fight for social justice, economic equity, and world peace.
My first memory of gender oppression was having a to wear a bra. It felt like I was a horse being put into harness. I hated having to wear dresses to school and hated pink. I wanted to be free like my older brothers. I objected to the schoolbooks that almost never referred to women and always in a stereotypical way. I never saw a reference to queers or Indigenous peoples.
The second conscious devastating blow to my freedom from gender awareness was at 12 when I had my first period. I was in so much pain that I had leave class. This happened every month for over ten years until I was introduced to strong pain killers.
I loved to play sports especially ice hockey and was the first girl at the Toronto Hockey School. I didn’t want to kiss a boy and when I did didn’t feel anything. Despite all the radical literature in my home it was only when I read Simone DeBeauvoir that I caught a glimpse of another life, homosexuality.
In Japan in 1964 I saw my first expressions of queer at the Takaradsuka Review where women dressed like men and men dressed like women and heard of their relationships with each other. I was so curious. I fell in love with a woman for the first time but froze. I was paralyzed.
In those days it was illegal to be homosexual and was considered a psychiatric disorder until 1985. As a student at UBC in 1968 I was elected head of the Speakers bureau inviting women’s, Indigenous, Black, Immigrant workers, and the Quebec liberation movement speakers but no gays or lesbians. I didn’t know of any.
I still couldn’t kiss a girl and feel the bliss I was beginning to read about in some gay or lesbian publications from the US. I was still invisible.
In 1969 when Pierre Trudeau said “the state has no rights in the bedrooms of the people”, it went viral around the world. Within months the Stonewall riot erupted out of a bar in New York.
I finally kissed a woman and felt ecstatic.
But I wasn’t out, as lesbianism was being used against the women’s movement. The media, churches and the status quo said that feminists were all lesbians and lesbians hated men. We didn’t hate men but we did hate their power and privilege even within the gay movement. In 1971 I was part of the Abortion Caravan fighting for women’s right to choose. I chained myself in the House of Commons gallery where we called out to the PM and MP’s for women’s right to abortion. We were front and centre in every media outlet in the country. The power of that campaign gave me the strength to come out.
I wrote a piece on lesbianism for the women’s liberation newspaper, but they wouldn’t accept it saying lesbianism was an American cultural import not politics. Caught between the movements, I decided we needed a lesbian feminist newspaper. I met Holly Devor and with friends we launched “The Other Woman” newspaper in Toronto.
We organized the first Gay Women’s conference in1972. Women wore paper bags on their heads because women were losing their jobs, children, forced into conversion therapy and being put in mental institutions if we were identified as lesbian.
Judith Quinlan and I wrote a two-page manifesto “On a Queer Day We Can See Forever”. We fixed up an old school bus and created “CORA The Women’s Liberation Bookmobile” travelling all over Ontario and Quebec sharing feminists books from Press Gang and queer materials from Glad Day Books.
We called on the queer movement to stop saying it was gay. We demanded that we call it the gay and lesbian movement. As lesbians we refused to be invisible. We were united against homophobia but our lives as men and women were very different. Women also had to fight for equal pay, childcare, wages for housework, against violence against women and were facing breast cancer.
The gay men owned the bars, businesses, most of the media and were fighting AIDS. Two men together were earning 60% more than two women and women had the overwhelming majority of unpaid work of child and elder care.
As women we were in both movements and were part of Indigenous, Black and Asian movements as well. It was later too much later we added Bi, then Trans, recently 2S, then I, A ++ because that’s who we are. We all experience the world differently though we are all queer. Our organizations calls on cities and movements to use an intersectional lens and disaggregated data so we are all seen and our diverse needs met.
In 2002 I was elected the first out lesbian city councillor in Canada. I was able to use my elected position to fight for women and queer friendly cities. There was a gay man elected at the same time. We hosted a Stonewall celebration in the Council chambers, hosted Pride launches at City Hall, painted the steps the colours of the rainbow and flew the Rainbow flag.
We set up LGTBQI, Women’s and multicultural Advisory Committees reporting directly to Council and created the first Pride House at the 2010 Olympics. I was able to get the Mayor to issue a Trans Proclamation and marched in the first TRANS parade. We gathered every city department, the library, school board, park board, fire fighters, police, Mayor, and Council to march together in the Pride Parades.
We encouraged the work of Drew Denis and Kai Nagata who wrote the 70 Trans Recommendations and joined the Annual Feb 14 Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women’s marches. I was able to get Vancouver join CCMARD the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination and launched Women Transforming Cities in the Vancouver Council Chambers.
If we have power we have to use it for all the people.
Life rarely goes in a straight line, and I lost the Nov 2011 election. I joined Quirk-e a queer senior writing and art group which has published many books and several Zines the latest one “Fighting Racism in the Queer Movement”. We write and speak about Queer seniors who fought for our rights but are now afraid as they become older and more vulnerable, many alone on low incomes and becoming invisible.
I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the UN International Women Friendly City Conference in Ankara, Turkey, at the Prague EU/North American Regional UN Habitat conference where I joined an international group of women putting gendered wording in the final document and fought but didn’t get agreement for queer wording.
Discouraged, I got a call from the chair of Youth Habitat about the UN Habitat conference. He was concerned there was no 2SLGTBQI wording in the UN Habitat document and no speakers at the Conference. He asked if I would hold a queer consultation from which Joy and I wrote the “Queer Declaration” in consultation with EGALE and many others.
The Canadian government asked if I would help them organize a queer panel. It was a complete turnaround from the invisibility of our issues months earlier. To top it all off we invited two gorgeous drag queens from Quito who waltzed into the event to thunderous applause. We said “we are here we are queer get used to it”. We felt so alive in 2016.
Since then I have written an article in “Basically Queer” about the situation of 2SLGTBQIA++ around the world and was a keynote speaker on queer issues at the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi where being LGTBQI++ is punishable by death. When I left the UN conference I was a target.
I was terrified there as I was when I spoke in Iraq and was told to be in the closet as young queers were being machined gunned down in the streets and killed by their families. I amplify the work of Outright, ILGA and other international groups. I represent Women Transforming Cities on the Dignity Network advisory group and am working to get queer voices in the upcoming WUF 11 in Poland this June.
Today we can proudly fly the Progress Flag in Canada because of our activism. One day I hope we can safely fly it all over the world. We need to share our power globally, learning from and support queers around the world by sharing their work and finding them funding.
We can help queer refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Uganda, Brazil and many other parts of the world find a safe home. We need to build intersectional coalitions addressing systemic homophobia, transphobia, racism, income disparities, colonialism, ablism and agism.
By creating coalitions, we build our strength. We can do that if we use an intersectional lens on our work, ensuring we are all visible and our policies, plans, funding, and actions work locally and globally.
I am now 74 and continue the fight for social justice - women and queer rights speaking out on gender and sexual orientation issues, against racism and colonialism. But being out and proud is no longer enough.
The right wing is on the rise all over the world killing, attacking, and pushing our queer rights off the table. The US Supreme Court decision Roe versus Wade will have implications for our rights and funding for groups around the world. The war in Ukraine is causing the rape, death and forced evacuation of women and queers to countries like Poland which has a right-wing government opposed to rights for queers and women.
We must speak out and call for peace. Together we can build stronger organizations. We feel our power and our joy in being safe, visible, and proud at this conference and during Pride week as we link with the international 2SLGTBQIA++ movement raising the Progress Flag.
We must build our strength joining with allies fighting climate change, racism, colonialism and war, step by step to build a world that includes us.” - Ellen Woodsworth