First-of-its-kind class explores gender ID and law

Nicole Nussbaum’s class is new to the academic landscape in Canada.

“I think this is the first course in the country to focus specifically on gender identity and the law,” said Nussbaum of her special topics course, Gender Identity and the Law, offered in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research (WSFR), for the first time this winter term.

The course is timely and topical, as it examines issues trans* individuals continue to face as they relate to law around the world.

Trans, followed by an asterisk, stems from common computing usage. It represents a wildcard, a term which encompasses any number of options that could be attached to the prefix. Some use this newly coined word as an umbrella term, which encompasses individuals who are transgendered, intersex, two-spirit or who otherwise don’t feel that traditional gender schemas work for them.

“This course is important,” said Wendy Pearson, undergraduate chair of WSFR, “especially at a time when legal battles around trans* protection under the law are still being fought in many places, yet, at the same time, Ontario is among a small number of provinces which have set a standard by including gender identity and gender expression as forbidden grounds for discrimination under their Human Rights Codes.”

Other provinces that have recently included gender identity and gender expression as forbidden grounds for discrimination under their Human Rights Codes include Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and the Northwest Territories.

“The timeliness of this course is also reflected in social change more generally,” Pearson added.

As a single example, Pearson said, look at Facebook. In the United States, the social media giant recently offered its subscribers an additional 56 gender terms to choose from, although Canadians are still only getting the binary options of male and female.

Originally from Toronto, Nussbaum works for Legal Aid Ontario as a staff lawyer in London’s family court.

Trans-identified herself, she has worked in law and policy around transgendered/transsexual issues and sits as the president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health, as well as serving as the vice-chair of the Canadian Bar’s Association on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference. She has presented on human rights issues, including those affecting trans individuals, for the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Senate.

Gender Identity and the Law covers topics such as employment, health-care access, legal standing and rights, identity documentation, recognition, marriage, parenting and discrimination, as well as prison policing and housing, among other topics where jurisprudence and gender identity intersect.

“Thirteen per cent of trans* people have been fired because they’re trans* and there’s an additional 15 per cent who’ve been terminated but can’t say 100 per cent it’s because they’re trans*,” said Nussbaum, mentioning examples of other issues and case studies examined in the class.

When it comes to the intersection of law and gender, the class was an important opportunity to learn and discuss topics that otherwise might get swept under the rug, one student noted.

“These issues are so important, and they often don’t get talked about. In the course, I learned about trans* history, and it was shocking how much of it is completely erased from public consciousness,” said Saralyn Russell, a fourth-year student pursuing an honours double major in Psychology and Sexuality Studies. “When was the last time you read about trans* issues in a textbook? In a newspaper? In a fictional novel? Not that often.

“We need to explicitly create spaces to talk about these things, otherwise they get erased.”

Even still, there are limitations to discussing a formal legal rights approach to issues of equity and inclusion, Nussbaum added.

“A critique of a rights-based approach is, by using it, we tend to focus on a perpetrator and victim and it basically lets us say that one person who did that discriminatory or harassing thing is a bad person who did a bad thing. This tends to erase, or take the focus off of, societal issues and prejudices,” she continued.

That’s not to discredit a rights-based approach, which is still needed; it’s just a limitation, Nussbaum explained.