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Sarah Grace RossBy Sarah Grace Ross

Unlike the majority of my fellow interns, my placement is not only within Canada, but in the very city where I was born: Toronto.

Despite having lived away from Toronto for a few years, it hasn’t taken long for me to become reacquainted with the city. From the neighbourhoods that my friends live in, to the best roti you can find, I know Toronto.

So with the start of my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, I was curious to find out what it would mean to work in human rights so close to home. My first realization during the internship was that while I know Toronto, I only know my Toronto, which is one version among millions. My internship was situated in a very different Toronto, one nested in the intersection of health and law, where I would be conducting legal research and policy advocacy for a segment of the population that, I came to realize, I didn’t know at all.

I had never met someone who was openly HIV+. Further, the only two public figures with HIV or AIDS that I could bring to mind were Freddy Mercury and Magic Johnson, a pretty short list. Fortunately, my first week at the Legal Network coincided with their annual symposium, where I met activists, mobilizers, lawyers, volunteers, and many individuals living with HIV. It became clear that while I would be working in a familiar city, everything about this job was going to feel new.

I was prepared to feel appalled at the human rights abuses of people living with HIV abroad, but as I began my first legal research projects, I realized there were many elements of living with HIV in Canada that were worse than I thought. After Russia and the United States, Canada is one of the most aggressive prosecutors of people living with HIV. Worse still, the criminal charge in non-disclosure cases is aggravated sexual assault, one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code. Past interns have written thorough blogs about disclosure, which is when someone is legally required to disclose their HIV status prior to sexual activity. Advocates such as the Legal Network argue that the criminal justice response is heavy handed and does not reflect scientific advances regarding HIV transmission risks. Studies show that maintaining an undetectable viral load through HIV medication makes the risk of transmitting the virus effectively non-existent.

The publication’s cover photo is from the 1990 Montreal Sex Garage riots.

A few years ago, Canada’s criminal justice approach to disclosure sparked an underground, anonymous, grassroots publication titled How to Have Sex in a Police State. The publication surfaced online in 2015 and provides tips on how a person can access support from the health care system without triggering surveillance from the criminal justice system in the process. The fact that these two systems are interconnected is a huge problem; people should not have to choose between health care and privacy. Since violence, stigma, and discrimination are a reality for many people living with HIV, the publication encourages individuals to protect themselves from potential criminal charges, for example by having proof of their HIV status disclosure (such as screenshots of text messages) or even going so far as having a signed waiver for sexual partners.

There’s an often-used slogan that captures the connection between the health care and criminal justice systems: ‘take the test, risk arrest’. I heard the slogan mentioned a few times during the symposium last month, which made me suspect that the ‘police state’ described in the publication was still a reality for some people living with HIV today, even in large, arguably progressive cities like Toronto. ‘Take the test, risk arrest’ refers to the assumption that whoever is diagnosed with HIV first is presumed to have brought it into the relationship. This misattribution of infection is particularly stigmatizing for vulnerable women whose diagnosis may take place as a result of prenatal care or other routine visits to the doctor. The fear of partner retaliation upon discovering HIV or risking criminal charges related to disclosure can lead vulnerable women to seek prenatal care at very late stages in their pregnancy, to stay in an abusive relationship, or to deter testing.

I haven’t been surprised to see flagrant HIV-related human rights abuses in my international research projects. But the extent to which a segment of the Canadian population has to intentionally protect itself from the criminal justice system on a health matter gives me pause. It troubles me to imagine that in my own city, people living with HIV are, even if unintentionally, treated as a threat from which criminal laws are meant to protect. Are people living with HIV not worthy of protection too? Or an even simpler question: what does criminal law have to do with HIV anyway?  Even when a person’s viral load is undetectable due to medication and therefore untransmittable, their sexual activities are subject to surveillance. Safe sex should be about protecting the health of one’s self and partner, not about protecting one’s self from the long arm of the law.

Trans*clusivity: a call to action

CW: Conversion Therapy & RPDR7 Spoiler
Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto. - Jeansil Bruyère

Hi folks, rain & fog have become my new friends in Toronto.
– Jeansil Bruyère

We are all born with privileges & barriers. More often than not, we overlook the privilege we benefit from while denouncing the barriers that hinder us. As a good friend of mine once said, privilege is not something we have per se but rather something we don’t have; it is a lack of barriers that spare us from stigma and discrimination. I am French-Canadian, biracial, male, gay, atheist of Muslim and Catholic decent, enrolled in legal studies at McGill University. Until recently, I never realized that being cisgendered could be added to that list of privileges and barriers that compose my identity. Cis-ness is a privilege because I do not face barriers to the same extent as lived by the trans*  members of our LGBTQ community: health, employment, immigration & education (just to name a few). In light of my cis-privilege and field of interest (i.e. human rights law), I am taking the platform offered by the McGill Centre of Legal Pluralism and Human Rights to call all other human rights activists to be more trans* inclusive, or trans*clusive as I titled this blog post.
Toronto City Hall proclamation of the international day against homophobia transphobia and biphobia.

Mayor John Tory proclaimed May 17th of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia.

Within a week of being at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Network (the Network), I was given the opportunity to meet mayor John Tory and Queer Ontario New Democrat MPP Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo at a City Hall Proclamation declaring May 17th, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Notably, DiNovo introduced Bill 77, the “Affirming Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Act” and is urging Kathleen Wynne to pass it by Pride in the upcoming weeks. The Act would prohibit conversion therapy for LGBTQ children, and prohibit doctors from billing Ontario Health Insurance for conversion therapy conducted on any patient. That said, Ontario isn’t the only province with groundbreaking trans* developments. Only a few days later in Quebec, amazing activists such as Gabrielle Bouchard, Samuel Singer and Jean-Sébastien Sauvé were speaking to the Committee on Institutions which included the Minister of Justice at the National Assembly at special consultations and public hearings on the draft regulation concerning the Regulation respecting change of name and of other particulars of civil status for transsexual and transgender persons. An issue of great concern for volunteering at the Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Clinic and many trans* people living in Quebec.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Clinique Juridique Trans* Legal Network held a Barreau du Québec continuing education workshop this past May.

Zomming out to what western-mainstream culture has been depicting of trans* folk, who can omit to mention Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, following in the footsteps of more mainstream trans* icons such as Lavern Cox (Time) and potentially Aydian Dowling (Men’s Health Ultimate Guy Search). Be it the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race (spoiler alert) crowning Violet Chachki as the next Drag Superstar or the fact that I actually live above a drag-crossdressing shop (wildside.org) with the most eclectic and amazing landlady in all of Toronto, LGBTQ developments are in my face and have been garnering more attention than ever. However, more coverage does not mean more understanding and awareness. For this very reason, I call my colleagues within the legal and human rights fields to acknowledge cis-normativity and fight back: attend workshops, get informed.
Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is an art gallery.

Yes, my front yard has a bedazzled motorcycle & my living room is indeed an art gallery.

In closing, within the various projects assigned by the Network, I have taken the time to integrate trans* oriented statistics and concerns. Did you know that the HIV prevalence rate, (i.e. the proportion of people in a population who have a particular disease at a specified point in time) among male-to-female transgender persons in North America is at 27.7%? Sorry, no Canadian-specific data is available and this is part of the problem. A problem that we can solved by being part of the trans* agenda and working towards a more inclusive environment for all. Whether it be policy analysis, academic research or just plain day-to-day conversation – keep in mind that we live in a heteronormative & cisnormative world where we often forget the benefits and hindrances of our privileges and barriers. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be part of a society where our children can live their lives with dignity and respect be they trans* or cisgendered/seropositive or seronegative/LGBTQ or allies. Honoured to be a jurist of the LGBTQ community, I truly believe that we have a duty to future generations to be more trans*clusive.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

A glimpse into my first day as a Policy Analyst Intern at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

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