Canada has been experiencing a growing wave of transphobia. Mirroring events in the United States, a number of conservative politicians have begun attacking legal protections on gender identity and the far right has been pushing transphobic conspiracy theories with increasing vigor.
The purpose of these attacks is clear: to distract working class people away from their economic conditions and redirect their anger towards trans people. All workers have an interest in rejecting this hysterical hate-mongering and in uniting together against the real enemy—the capitalists.
Trans oppression in Canada
Transgender people are one of the most vulnerable groups in Canadian society. They experience widespread social marginalization and live in poverty at much higher rates than most of the population.
According to a 2020 study by Trans PULSE Canada, nearly half of trans people in Canada live either below the poverty line or very close to the poverty line. The report also found that, at the time of writing, 16 per cent of trans people were unemployed (as compared to 5.5 per cent for Canada as a whole) and that 35 per cent were employed in temporary or part-time positions. LGTBQ+ people as a whole are twice as likely to experience homelessness or housing insecurity than other Canadians. Trans people have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Thirty-three per cent of trans people in Toronto have reported living in a vehicle, vacant building, or public space since the start of the pandemic.
Much of this can be explained by the social position of trans Canadians. Prejudice against gender minorities is unfortunately very widespread. As a result, trans people experience discrimination in housing, education, and the job market that often keeps them from securing a decent standard of living. The Canadian Labour Congress reports that 73 per cent of trans people have experienced physical violence or verbal harassment at the workplace. Sixty-four per cent of trans people also say they avoid at least three types of public spaces to avoid harassment.
Consequently, the trans community is dealing with a widespread mental health crisis. Trans people experience depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide at rates far higher than the rest of the population. Tragically, trans youth are five times more likely to consider suicide and 7.6 times more likely to attempt it than the general population.
It’s worth noting that despite the rhetoric of the right-wing, people who could be considered transgender or non-binary have existed throughout the entire course of human history in cultures around the world. From two-spirit people from North American First Nations; to hijras in India; to the third, fourth, and fifth genders—calalai, calabai, and bissu—in Indonesia; for the vast majority of history being trans or nonbinary in some way was a normal and accepted part of human culture. It is only with the development of class society that gender oppression has taken root, so that today under capitalism, trans people are attacked for simply trying to exist as they are.
Attacks from the right
As if the conditions of trans people already aren’t bad enough, the right has firmly committed themselves to making all of these statistics even worse.
Examples can be pulled from any province in the country. In Alberta, MLA-elect Jennifer Johnston made especially egregious comments claiming that high test scores in public schools don’t matter because some of the kids are trans. In an uncovered audio recording, she was heard comparing transgender schoolchildren to feces in a batch of cookies. She said, “‘Enjoy, I only put a teaspoon of poop in [the cookies], but it doesn’t matter because it’s only a teaspoon in the whole batch.” She also made the absurdly false claim that elementary school teachers are keeping litter boxes in their classrooms for “kids who are identifying as cats”.
Johnston was kicked out of the UCP caucus for these comments, but it’s far from the first time this type of rhetoric has appeared in their party. Back in 2019, a UCP candidate came under fire for spreading a lie that NDP protections for trans people allow grown men to “walk into schools and go to girls’ washrooms.”
In New Brunswick, Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs recently attacked Policy 713, a code that outlines protections for LGBTQ+ students. He opposes a provision which requires teachers to use trans students’ preferred pronouns, saying that parents should be notified if their child uses a different name or pronouns than they do at home—he opposes it so much that he’s willing to trigger an election over the issue! For trans youth with unaccepting parents, school may be the one place where they can express who they are. Taking away Policy 713 would further marginalize these children and create unnecessary danger in their home lives.
In Quebec, the Québecor media outlets in particular have produced an avalanche of articles ridiculing or attacking trans people and drag queens, sometimes subtly, and sometimes openly, spreading hatred and transphobia in the process. The CAQ has not jumped on this bandwagon, perhaps because not too long ago in 2021, the party was forced to backtrack on a bill containing transphobic measures, following a big backlash. But make no mistake, the manufactured hysteria against trans people and drag queens is too profitable for the right-wing media for it to go away. The fight against the prejudices spread by these people is just starting.
On the federal stage, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) recently unleashed a new point in their platform targeting what they call “radical gender ideology.” If elected (which is admittedly very unlikely at the moment), the PPC promises to overturn legal protections against gender-based discrimination, reverse the ban on conversion therapy for trans minors, and ban trans women from women’s sports and public washrooms.
The scope of this article is limited to a handful of examples, but, unfortunately, many more instances can be pulled out at will. These attacks are forming a clear pattern, a deliberate tactical choice of the right-wing to galvanize their base, and one that results in emboldening bigotry, harassment, and discrimination against trans people.
This can be perhaps most clearly seen in the absurd opposition to drag queens. It’s become a common sight to see protests outside of drag events. Frequently, these protests are organized and promoted by leaders of the right-wing “Freedom Convoy” from last year. Drag performers have been increasingly subjected to homophobic and transphobic slurs, as well as threats of violence. Éric Duhaime, leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec (a party that won 12 per cent of the vote in the last provincial election) recently put forward a petition to supposedly “protect children from drag queens.” At a drag event at a library in Brockville, Ontario, one man went so far as to break his way onto the roof and set fire to the library’s HVAC system in an attempt to shut the event down.
Much of the controversy is based around family-friendly drag story hours, where drag queens read books to children at public libraries as a way to promote acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities. The far-right has propagated a complete and utter myth that trans women and drag queens are largely pedophiles and that the real purpose of these events is to “groom” children for sexual abuse. It’s difficult to overstate just how dangerous such a slanderous lie is. It directly places LGBTQ+ people at risk of violence.
These cruel attacks only encourage more hateful behaviour that makes the day-to-day struggles of trans people even more difficult than they already are. It has already resulted in a sharp rise in discrimination. Between 2019 to 2021, hate crimes based on sexual orientation increased by 60 per cent. This will only become more dire if the trend is allowed to continue.
Capitalism is to blame
We should note that Canada isn’t just an organically transphobic society. As a matter of fact, despite the current mood, the general trend over the past few years has been towards greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.
Back in 2016, when the federal government first proposed legislative protections on gender identity, 84 per cent of Canadians said they would support such a decision. At the same time, 70 per cent said it would be a good thing for society to adopt a more fluid understanding of gender, 59 per cent supported a third gender option on ID cards—or removing gender from ID entirely—and 67 per cent approved of trans boys and girls using public washrooms that match with their gender identity.
Even as recently as 2021, 61 per cent of adult Canadians said they “support LGBT people being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity with everyone.” One study published by the journal Pediatrics that same year found that 62 per cent of trans youth reported having “strong parental support”.
So where did this spike in bigotry come from and why is it arising right now? To understand this process, we need to turn our eyes to the general state of Canadian society.
Canadian capitalism is in the midst of a miserable crisis. Workers are being ground between the wheels of inflation and austerity. Meanwhile, corporate profits are through the roof. This has created a wide feeling of disillusionment in the system. Polls have found that 67 per cent of Canadians think that “everything feels broken”, while 65 per cent believe the country is going down the wrong track. Fewer and fewer Canadian workers feel that the system has anything to offer them, which is reflected in declining voter turnouts across the country. Never before has Canadian society experienced such a deep malaise.
This has resulted in increasing strike activity, like the strike of Ontario education workers last November that almost sparked a general strike, or the largest federal employee strike in 30 years that took place in April. Accordingly, the capitalists and their politicians are increasingly worried about class struggle.
The capitalists are losing control of the situation and they know it. In response, a certain wing of the Canadian ruling class has turned to a classic policy of divide and rule. Conservatives are whipping up prejudiced hysteria in order to distract workers from their real problems. If working class Canadians are tricked into blaming trans people and the “woke left” for capitalism’s failures, then they’ll pay less attention to the wage cuts and austerity being handed down to them from above.
On the flip side, this strategy also gives the Liberals a new lease on life. They get to justify their rule by painting themselves as the only people who can defend LGBTQ+ rights. Meanwhile, when Liberals are actually in power, they do nothing to better the conditions of marginalized groups or protect them from attacks. They just slap on a rainbow pin and attend a Pride march every June and call it a day.
This is essentially the same playbook of the American ruling class. The last presidential election in the United States was nothing more than an elaborate game of good cop, bad cop. Keeping in line with his presidency, Donald Trump ran on a program of outright reaction and bigotry, while Joe Biden poised himself as the saviour of women, Black people, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants. But now that the Democrats are back in power, the Biden administration has done absolutely nothing to defend trans people against the 541 anti-trans bills introduced in 2023 alone. The movement in Canada needs to absorb this experience and place absolutely no faith in the Liberals or the tactic of “lesser-evilism” to stop transphobia.
The same dynamic has arisen in the United Kingdom as well. As the British ruling class continues to discredit itself, the Tories have increasingly utilized “culture war” rhetoric in a desperate attempt to whip up support. The direct result of this has been a wave of transphobic fear mongering which directly led to the cowardly murder of a young trans girl named Brianna Ghey earlier this year. If conservatives in Canada keep fanning the flames of bigotry, it’s only a matter of time before we see similar violence here at home.
Fight back with class unity
In recent decades, certain groups have argued that the way to support trans rights is to split it off into its own isolated category. The clearest example of this is intersectionality, which argues that every person experiences and contributes to an interweaving web of oppression. To the intersectionalist, every oppressed person is simultaneously an oppressor: cis gay people oppress trans people on the basis of being cis (that is, someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth), white trans people oppress Black trans people on the basis of being white, and so on and so forth. The logical conclusion flowing from this perspective is that the movement of each oppressed group should be sequestered into smaller and increasingly specific individual struggles. “Stay-in-your-lane” politics openly discourage people from speaking about oppression that they do not suffer from directly.
These ideas present themselves as progressive, but they actually feed into the hands of bigots. Any suggestion that cis and trans workers have opposing interests on the basis of their gender identity only serves to deepen fissures where they already exist, isolating trans people from the broader movement. It is the same logic as those who oppose trans rights on an explicitly reactionary basis, but given a progressive veneer. It validates the arguments of “LGB” activists who want to split the trans movement away from the rest of the LGBTQ+ movement on the basis that sexual and gender oppression are “unrelated” “separate lanes”. It fundamentally agrees with virulently transphobic radical feminists that the interests of cis women and trans women are inherently opposed, instead of united against gender oppression. And, intersectionality agrees with the far-right that the struggles of trans people are disconnected and alien from the rest of the working class.
This entire approach, whether from the right or the left, also shows a massive misunderstanding of what anti-trans sentiment actually represents.
The attack on trans rights is not an isolated phenomena. It is interwoven with the “anti-woke” movement which has emerged in Canada, and around the world, which presents a risk to all working-class and marginalized people. The situation in America is confirmation of this, where the attack on trans rights is part of a wider attack on bodily autonomy, which has so far culminated in the abolition of federal abortion rights and the creation of abortion bans in state after state.
Observe federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, the leading figure of Canada’s so-called culture war, to see what the “anti-woke” movement has to offer workers. It’s clear at a glance that Poilievre is no friend to gender minorities. He is closely associated with Jordan Peterson, who initially made a name for himself by attacking trans people. But it doesn’t stop there. Polievre has already spent much of his time as party leader whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria and trying to turn workers against asylum seekers. Poilievre is also in bed with racist conspiracy theorists. He recently spoke to a think tank which openly denies the horrors of residential schools and claims they were created to “save” Indigenous people
In fact, a Poilievre government would be disastrous for all workers. In power, he would unleash a vicious wave of attacks and austerity on the working class as a whole. He is fully in league with Canada’s rich elite and the hypocritical “anti-establishment” rhetoric he puts forward is nothing more than a cloak for his real intentions. The same thing can be said about the UCP in Alberta, the CAQ government in Quebec, and every other party that has made the “war on woke” a part of its program.
Transphobia itself also affects more than just trans people. Many cis women and girls will inevitably face backlash for not looking like what transphobes think a woman “should” look like. Just this month, a nine-year-old cis girl was screamed at by a grown man at a track and field meet in Kelowna, B.C. for having short hair, thereby “appearing” to be trans. The man demanded documentation proving her birth sex and the man’s wife called the girl’s mother “a genital mutilator, a groomer, and a pedophile.” It appears the right believes that the best way to protect children is by harassing their parents and making them cry in public.
There is a similar point to be made about drag protests. Many drag performers are trans, but many other drag performers aren’t. Drag protests are just as closely tied to homophobia as they are to transphobia. A vitriolic transphobe who’s angry enough to protest a drag event is unlikely to “just” be transphobic.
Who benefits from all of this tension, conflict, and bigotry? No working-class person of any gender identity stands to gain from trans people being denied the right to live how they please. Actually, the opposite is the case. Attacks on gender-affirming health care, for instance, will only be used as a precedent to cut health-care spending for all workers.
As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of trans people are also working class and therefore share the same basic economic interests as all other workers. Many of the issues that trans people experience—from high poverty to difficulty accessing jobs and healthcare—are the same issues that many workers today struggle with, just amplified and tied together with social discrimination.
Understanding this is the key to understanding how we fight transphobia. Capitalism seeks to divide us against one another because it’s the only way this increasingly unpopular system can preserve itself in our era of crisis and turmoil. But the workers’ movement can only be strengthened through unity. It is therefore imperative that the labour movement rejects any and all attempts to divide workers along the lines of identity of any sort. Bigotry must be cut across with class solidarity. Any time a trans worker suffers discrimination of any sort in a workplace, the workers should unite and strike back at the boss. Any transphobic bill by any legislature should be met by mass demonstrations using the power and resources of trade unions to mobilize people. Cases of discrimination in housing should likewise be met by solidarity protests. This type of united, mass struggle against discrimination is what we need to repel attacks against trans people, fighting any trace of prejudice within the working class in the process.
But it isn’t enough to simply fight back against transphobia and other forms of bigotry where they arise. To kill a weed, it must be destroyed at the roots. Discrimination is a natural consequence of capitalism. The only way to solve this question once and for all is by uniting and channeling the struggles of workers and all oppressed groups into the fight for socialist revolution.
Bigotry isn’t human nature. It’s an evil that is created and encouraged by class society. It must be pointed out that gender-based oppression didn’t exist until society was divided into classes. The social basis for discrimination is scarcity. Under capitalism, workers are made to struggle daily for the necessities of life. Amid the drudgery of it all, it’s easy for some workers to be pitted against other workers for their oppression, and to start fights over the scraps that the rich hand down. The only way to solve this is through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the creation of an entirely new system.
A socialist economy based on the democratic, rational planning of the economy would guarantee a healthy and dignified life for all. This would represent a complete transformation in human relations. A system based on cooperation would remove the incentive for bigotry against any specific groups to persist. For trans people and sexual minorities, this would mean the right and freedom to present, live, and express themselves in whichever way they please.
Of course, a socialist government wouldn’t mean the immediate eradication of all bigotry overnight. But it would give us the tools to fight it. Such a society would mean the beginning of a new era of human relations based on genuine solidarity and respect. Revolution provides us with the only way towards this future.