Transforming gender norms

One trans woman's experience at the Landlord and Tenant Board changes policy

After coming out as trans, Sophia Banks says her relationship with her landlord got weird.

A few months after Banks began living as a woman in 2012, her landlord increased the rent. Banks found two roommates to help out with the rent, but the landlord issued an eviction notice and the roommates left. Banks stayed, maintaining that the eviction was illegal because the landlord hadn’t filed formal notice with the Landlord and Tenant Board.

When Banks refused to leave, her landlord took the case to the board. Instead of getting the vindication Banks had hoped for, she lost the case.

The fact that the adjudicator kept referring to her as a man made it hard for Banks to believe she’d gotten a fair hearing. “I was begging them: ‘I’m a woman. Please use female pronouns.’ He kept ignoring me and looking away.”

She wrote to Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo. Since DiNovo’s historic initiative adding protections for trans people to the Ontario Human Rights Code, discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity has been illegal.

In April, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a policy detailing how those rights should be protected.

“Organizations are liable for any discrimination and harassment that happens,” states the policy, which is a guide and legal reference. “They are also liable for not accommodating a trans person’s needs unless it would cause undue hardship.”

Undue hardship, according to the policy, can be a financial burden or a safety concern, but must be quantifiable and not based on stereotypes. “[Organizations] must deal with complaints, take steps to prevent problems and provide a safe, welcoming environment for trans people,” according to the policy.

The policy contains sections explaining bias and prejudice, the laws as they stand, best practices around gender-related language and the case law on the subject. It also includes a checklist for workplaces wishing to be trans-inclusive.

Notably, the policy states that trans people should be able to access gender-specific services such as washrooms based on the gender in which they live. It states that in places where dress codes apply, they should specify the articles of clothing that are acceptable, but not which gender must wear which garments.

“We wanted our policy to reflect the real barriers that are out there and provide ways of getting rid of them,” says Barbara Hall, chief commissioner at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “This is pretty close to the most vulnerable community out there.”

She explains that the Human Rights Code is “quasi-constitutional,” which means it trumps all other legislation unless specifically stated in law. “You can’t discriminate based on gender identity and gender expression,” says Hall.

Psychotherapist Jodee McCaw, who has worked with many trans clients, says constantly having to correct people can take a serious toll on a trans person’s psyche.

“Imagine you go through a day where everyone you interact with takes you for the other gender…. Imagine how you would feel at the end of the day. [Then] imagine all your days are like that. It always makes you feel less of a person.”

After hearing from Banks about her ordeal, DiNovo sent a sternly worded letter to the Landlord and Tenant Board.

She received a response from Michael Gottheil, executive chair of Social Justice Tribunals Ontario (of which the Landlord and Tenant Board is part), assuring her that the treatment Banks received would not happen again.

But it did, when a different mediator involved in her case misgendered her. “[The mediator] said my voice was triggering him,” she says.

In a second letter to DiNovo, Gottheil wrote that management had spoken with Banks’s adjudicator but had not yet communicated the message to the broader staff.

“This was obviously a gap on our part, and for Ms. Banks, a very unfortunate gap, with disturbing consequences…. I sincerely apologize,” he wrote.

Gottheil was unavailable for an interview, but according to Kimberley Massingberd, Social Justice Tribunals Ontario’s communications adviser, “We have also used this recent experience to reflect on, and strengthen, our existing training on human rights and inclusion.”

Meanwhile, Banks’ landlord maintains she was legally entitled to evict her tenant to move into the unit herself, where she now lives.

“The first adjudicator wasn’t aware that [Banks] was transsexual, so [getting her gender right] was confusing the first time around,” says the landlord. “The second time, we talked to a mediator who was trying really hard. But I think it was so difficult because of the way [Banks] presents.”

Banks is pleased that drawing attention to her case has affected protocol at the Landlord and Tenant Board, but to allege discrimination in her board ruling, she’d have to begin a formal complaint process. She says she’s not sure she has the energy. “I feel so defeated.” | @nowtoronto

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