Featuring an interview with Morgane Oger, trans politician and activist
Alexis Zygan // Contributor
Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) is set to lose $33,937 in funding after they refused services to trans women and sex workers and declined to change their trans-exclusionary policies. The question of VRR’s funding was addressed by the Vancouver City Council on March 14, 2019, and the society was given a year to implement the changes in their policies. This grace period was ignored under the claim that they wanted to ensure a safe space for those “born as women.” General Manager of Arts, Culture and Community Services for Vancouver Sandra Singh communicated that “using this clause as a rationale for one marginalized group to further marginalize another marginalized group is not in keeping the City’s overall intent of the criteria and exception, nor City values.”
Vancouver Rape Relief, a product of the second-wave feminism movement, opened its doors in 1974 and was the first organization to provide services for women fleeing abuse in Vancouver. From the start, VRR specified that their “core services are not open to people who do not share our life experience of being born females and raised as girls into our current womanhood.”
In 1995, Kimberly Nixon, a trans woman and victim of male-violence, signed up to volunteer at VRR but was denied because of her gender identity. Nixon filed a human rights complaint, leading VRR to issue an apology and offer $500 in compensation. Nixon remained unsatisfied and the case was then brought to the BC Human Rights Tribunal where they ruled that VRR was at fault. VRR requested a judicial review and at that time they were protected by Human Rights Code, Section 41 which exempted VRR of responsibility due it being a charitable non-profit organization that’s primary purpose promoted the interests and welfare of women and “that organization or corporation must not be considered to be contravening this Code because it is granting a preference to members of the identifiable group or class of persons.” However, in 2015 Vancouver took a step towards equality by approving a motion for “Ensuring Trans Equality and an Inclusive Vancouver.”
Media reports following the decision to defund VRR framed the situation as discriminatory against Vancouver Rape Relief because of their decision to provide spaces for those assigned female at birth. “The demand is undemocratic and very dangerous bullying move on behalf of councillors,” said VRR representative Hilla Kerner to the Toronto Star. Kerner told the National Post that the decision to exclude trans women is equivalent to other organizations only serving a specific demographic, like a youth shelter.
“This organization has been presenting that this is a campaign to take away women’s spaces,” said Vancouver trans activist, former vice-president of the BC NDP and founding member of the Law Union of B.C, Morgane Oger. “I am appalled to see the press are not doing the due diligence enough to recognize this is their propaganda. That in reality, there is a very specific reason why this organization lost its funding from the City of Vancouver by a unanimous vote of city councillors, eight of which are women, three of which are men, none of which are openly trans. Their decision, based on analysis, is that this organization has not been inclusive to all women for years,” Oger said.
Currently, VRR excludes trans folks from their services, which range from a free legal clinic, support group, transition house and peer-counselling with no waiting list.
In 1983, VRRs founders left to form their own organization, WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre. “I am told that the organization was starting to suffer from a disagreement on whether to focus on services or ideology,” said Oger. “And it was decided that VRR would stay focused on ideology and stay political, which is recognized in the Kimberely Nixon case in which the judge said, as a political organization, VRR is free to determine who their members are and who gets services. Which is interesting because political organizations refuse to accept government funding.”
Systemic transphobia doesn’t only harm trans women but also sex workers who are also excluded from accessing services due to VRR’s belief that sex work is inherently abusive. All other shelters and organizations in Vancouver include all women regardless of their gender identity or source of employment. VRR validates their clause of exclusion by rallying towards “women-only spaces”. VRR does provide a safe space for some women but fails to include marginalized women who are more at risk of harm.
There are many other organizations in Vancouver that do not discriminate based on gender, sex or occupation including Wish, WAVAW, Atira and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter. The Morgane Oger Foundation is working towards making it easier for people to record their experiences of violence through an app. “It stores incidents of populous hatred, geocodes it and maps the participants in a way to help identify patterns of advocacy, extremist activism and try to evaluate if this goes above a legal barrier,” said Oger. It will also track government data to identify the locations where services are denied and compare them to other data sets to show whether there are correlations between place and the availability of public services. Their goal is to reduce systemic barriers to reporting a crime as 24 per cent of trans people who recorded their assaults were harassed by the police.
Cutting the funding to Vancouver Rape Relief fails to solve the bigger issue at hand: the rise of trans antagonism. “Vancouver Rape Relief should realign with their mission to end violence against women and should recognize that engaging in hatred against some women causes violence against women,” said Oger. “This is a group that is run by its members that hold onto this belief, and its members can change this belief.”