When you unpack it all, human beings have more in common with each other than we have separating us. But sometimes it's hard to remember that.
Two weeks ago we took another step toward that commonality. Ontario passed Bill 33, an act to amend the Human Rights Code with respect to gender identity and expression. This would protect transsexual and transgender persons. And I'm overjoyed.
Not only is it wrong to discriminate against trans people, but it's now illegal, a fact that sends a clear message to employers, landlords, restaurant owners and gyms that they can never say, "We don't serve, hire or rent to people like you." It tells the trans community that we are included, that we are valued.
Of course, there are still people who don't get it yet, but we hope to surround them with positive, supportive messages. The issue is, we look different, we sound different. Our body image doesn't always express who we think we are inside, and sometimes people see us as different.
Imagine me on the telephone, for example. I've been refused credit card validation, had trouble activating accounts and dealing with student loans - those at the other end of the line don't believe I'm Susan because of my deep voice. I have to be more patient, but it wears me down.
When I do radio interviews, I listen to my voice and wish I sounded different. I wish had a different body. You never know how people are interpreting your self-presention. But I have to make the best of what I've got; too bad not everyone sees it that way.
Still, I'm one of the lucky ones. There's a high rate of attempted suicide in our community, 70 to 80 per cent, and it's a miracle that many of us even grow up. Some don't make it; others end up in mental institutions or the justice system.
That's where the Human Rights Code amendment comes in. I was in the Eaton Centre last week, standing in a long lineup in the women's washroom. People sometimes look at me like I didn't belong there; it's a common experience. And I said to myself, "The state says I belong here."' It's a subliminal message: the Ontario Legislature says indeed I do deserve to be in this washroom or anywhere else for that matter. That's a powerful feeling.
Everyone has a difficult story, and because we had some losses in the community, among them a high-profile organizer who came from near the street and struggled, I think maybe I need to be a little more honest about my own background and history.
So here it is: I was a lost soul. As a child in a military family that moved around a lot, I felt a sense of loss and detachment. I ran away from home when I was a teen, was homeless for 10 years and had an alcohol problem. I really checked out. It was very hard for me to come to terms with who I was. I felt ashamed, I felt guilty, and it took me until middle age to come to terms with being my authentic self.
Fifteen years ago I got off the street with the support of the Parkdale Community Centre, received the Courage To Come Back Award from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and studied public policy and adminisration at York U.
Watching people who come out later in life and who have had traumatic experiences gives me humility and makes me realize we are all kids just trying to get through life. The more I live, the more oppression I observe and injustice I experience, the more I want to help make the neighbourhood a little more caring. The message I'm sending to trans people, and to all who experience hardship, is that there is hope. Sometimes things get better.
To celebrate the passage of Bill 33, I made a rare visit to the Metropolitan Community Church. It was Father's Day, and because my relationship with my father was so very, very negative, I was feeling mixed emotions, vacillating between joy and sadness.
When I went for the benediction, the person officiating told me: "You are blessed and you are loved." Wow, I thought, I'm blessed and loved. And thanks to the Ontario Legislature, I'm protected.
Susan Gapka is an organizer with the Trans Lobby Group, a housing activist and a former candidate for city council.