An important bill that has received little media attention is advancing to its third reading this spring in Parliament. Bill C-6 is “An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy)” and defines conversion therapy as “a practice that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviours, or to change an individual’s gender identity to match the sex they were assigned at birth.” The first clause of the bill, pertaining to sexual orientation, is not objectionable — one should not attempt to “convert” gay and lesbian people into heterosexual people. The second clause, which addresses “gender identity” and “sex assigned at birth” will, if passed into federal law, imperil Canadian secularism.
Anyone paying attention to contemporary culture will by now be aware that some Canadians experience life-changing epiphanies regarding gender identity and that reflective personal practices of gender expression are profoundly meaningful to them. Their beliefs and practices in this regard are already protected in the first of the four fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “freedom of conscience and religion.” However, while all Canadians are free to explore and espouse their beliefs about gender identity, they are not free to impose these beliefs nor concomitant expressive practices on others. In fact, the Charter is careful to specify that “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”
This specification is important when dealing with questions of faith and sincerely-held belief. A feature that contemporary genderism shares with other religious traditions — such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — is that it demands many more concessions from women than it does from men. Believers may find a kind of liberatory spiritual reward in subjecting themselves to such strictures, and for the most part, a secular society like Canada does not see fit to interfere. What believers may not do in a society like ours, however, is demand that others adhere to these strictures as well. Catholics and Evangelical Christians may believe abortion is a sin, but in Canada, they can’t interfere in any woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. Hasidic Jews and conservative Muslims might believe it is best for women to cover their hair when outside the home, but they may not compel any Canadian woman to do so.
Genderism looks very much like a patriarchal religion in the disproportionate demands it makes on women. It insists that it is not enough for everyone to treat trans-identified people with respect and tolerance, but that women in particular must welcome trans-identified men into intimate spaces where women are made uncomfortable by males, like bathrooms and changing rooms. It enjoins women to open sporting competitions to trans-identified men. If a woman is raped by a trans-identified man, in British Columbia at least, the raped woman will be compelled to describe her male rapist as “she” and “her” during trial proceedings. Should that trans-identified male rapist be convicted, his crime is now recorded by Statistics Canada as having been committed by a woman and Canadian women prisoners are already being obliged to serve their terms alongside trans-identified male criminals. Nothing similarly risky and humiliating is demanded by genderism of men.
Genderism also looks very much like a patriarchal religion in its rigidly dogmatic attitude toward children. Bill C-6 criminalizes airing anything but the one true faith in the presence of gender dysphoric boys and girls. Their gender identity must be “affirmed,” not explored. Open dialogue about any possible causes of gender dysphoria other than having been “assigned” the wrong sex at birth will become anathema. And, again, this inflexible dictum has a disproportionate negative impact on girls. The number of girls identifying as transgender has skyrocketed in recent years — as has the number of young women later desisting and detransitioning. During the Bill C-6 hearings, MP Randall Garrison called detransitioning a “false narrative,” dismissing the real experiences of these women and girls as not even worth thinking about.
Finally, genderism resembles fundamentalist religions in that its followers recite formulaic creeds (such as “transwomen are women”) that are taken as revealed truth by the faithful but leave nonbelievers cold. Above all, it resembles religious fundamentalism in the way it zealously seeks to punish nonbelievers, heretics, and apostates. I know something about this, as do many other disobedient feminist women like me: put “TERF” in a search engine and see what turns up.
The Charter guarantees Canadians religious freedom, but it also guarantees Canadians freedom from religion. The latter has an especially key role in guaranteeing equality for male and female persons in Canada, as so many religious ideologies exalt men and denigrate women. Canadians are free to organize their own lives around their own religious beliefs. They are not at liberty to organize the lives of others around such beliefs, no matter how compelling and meaningful they find these beliefs to be.
It is ironic that Bill C-6 is described as opposing conversion. Should it become law, all Canadians will find themselves statutory disciples in an increasingly doctrinal gender theocracy. As in every religious theocracy that has ever existed, it will be a grim place to be a woman or girl.
Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta, a signatory of the Women’s Declaration on Sex-Based Rights, and a member of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign in Canada.