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Edmonton transgender rights advocate honoured

At one point, Dr. Lorne Warneke was the only psychiatrist in Alberta seeing transgender patients

Lorne Warneke is a psychiatrist who just recieved an award from the U of A for his Transgender rights advocacy.

Kevin Tuong / for metro

Lorne Warneke is a psychiatrist who just recieved an award from the U of A for his Transgender rights advocacy.

It was sheer chance that Dr. Lorne Warneke’s first exposure to psychiatry as a medical student was with a transgender patient.

Years later, he would be the only psychiatrist in Alberta tackling gender dysphoria and people would travel from all over Western Canada to see him.

“It was a year and a half to get in to see me. And at one point I had something like 260 referrals, people waiting for a first-time assessment. It was just horrendous,” Warneke said.

The psychiatrist and devoted LGBTQ advocate was honoured last week with the University of Alberta’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Warneke was a third-year medical student in 1965, when few people were openly transgender, and his first assigned patient was a trans woman.

As someone whose own identity was stigmatized, he quickly felt a connection to some of the challenges faced by transgender individuals.

“I’m a gay male, and I didn’t come out until I was in my 40s,” Warneke said. “All the negative comments and the fear of being discovered … I knew to some degree what it was like to be living with stigma.”

He said transgender patients are “the most stigmatized of all, because they’re even stigmatized within medicine.”

Warneke went far beyond his role as a psychiatrist in fighting passionately for his patients.

In 1984, he successfully advocated for the Alberta government to pay for three trans women to get gender reassignment surgeries in Belgium.

Twelve years later, Warneke opened Edmonton’s first gender clinic at the Grey Nuns Hospital, which became a destination for transgender people who were coming out in growing numbers.

“It opened the floodgate in terms of the general population,” Warneke said. “Individuals who were before afraid and stayed in the closet were now coming out and asking for help.”

His advocacy has also included lobbying the province to give people the right to change the gender marker on their driver’s licences and birth certificates.

He said psychiatrists are “gatekeepers” for a lot of transgender people, in terms of referrals for hormone therapy and surgeries like breast reduction and hysterectomies

Warneke’s work has faced opposition from religious institutions — including, he says, his employer Covenant Health.

Warneke said the board of the Catholic health-care provider tried to restrict the work he does at the Grey Nuns in 2009, after the province briefly de-listed funding for gender reassignment surgery.

“The misunderstanding on the part of the church and dogma is that being transgender was a choice,” Warneke said.

“There’s no choice involved. The only choice is what are you going to do about it when you come to terms with this.”

While attitudes have “a long way to go” he said they are getting better, and recent legislation has made Alberta one of the best jurisdictions in the world for protecting people on the grounds of gender expression and sexual identity.

“I think we’re probably as good as countries as Sweden. And certainly much, much better than our neighbours to the south,” he said.

Warneke has promoted the teaching of gender issues and identity at the U of A and MacEwan University, and several of his students have gone on to continue his work.

He still works out of the Grey Nuns but plans to retire at the end of the year.

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