Toronto activist Susan Gapka battles for transgender human rights
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It’s noon-hour, and already Susan Gapka has pedalled by Bixi from her Gay Village home to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and back downtown.
Then a vigil at the Church of the Holy Trinity for the 700th homeless person to die on our streets. After lunch, it’s off to St. Mike’s Hospital for a meeting at its Centre for Research on Inner City Health.
So, between quick bites of pot roast, Gapka, 56, talks of her life, one full of tragedy and triumph, transitions and transformations, while constantly checking her phone.
Her lobbying to get NDP MP Randall Garrison’s private member’s bill C-279 passed never stops. Set for third reading on Wednesday, it aims to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code so that trans people like Gapka are never again targeted for discrimination.
“I call myself a ‘systems survivor,’ ” the founding chair of Canada’s Trans Lobby Group says. “I have survived so many systems. The legal system. The medical system. The housing system. The homeless system. The shelter system. The political system. The family system.”
Where to begin recounting Gapka’s journey? At age 8, shooting marbles with the other boys at Trenton Air Force Base while envying the girls playing dress-up? At 17, after escaping an emotionally abusive environment for Toronto? Or during the 1980s when, one after another, his mother was killed, his father passed away, his younger sister died and his wife left?
“I ended up on the streets for about 10 years,” says Gapka, who calls that period his—for she was still a he then—“lost years, dark ages.”
She laughs. “I’ve come a long way, baby.”
Indeed. In 1997, because she found housing, Gapka was able to get into recovery. That while volunteering at the Daily Food Bank and at Parkdale’s Community Health Centre. In 1999, she won CAMH’s Courage to Come Back Award. In 2000, she graduated with honours from the Community Worker Program at George Brown College. A political science degree from York University would come in 2009.
All this helped her find the self-confidence and the self-acceptance to finally come out as Susan.
“When Andy Barrie called me — I was already experimenting — to tell me that I had received the CAMH award, my first thought was, well, do I wear a dress to the prom?” she says with a laugh. “By the time I showed up at Olivia Chow’s office at city hall (as a volunteer) in September 2000, I was living as Susan full time.”
And then the politician in her wanted out.
“I ran for a city council seat in 2006. Well that was difficult let me tell you. But it didn’t deter me because I ran again in 2010. It really broke my heart because I tried harder but got fewer votes.”
Throughout this, as she puts it, time of “redemption,” Gapka’s new war was raging, the one to win equality for every Canadian who struggles with gender identity.
“It’s a wonder we ever graduate or survive,” she says, explaining that trans people grapple with housing and job discrimination, poverty, mental health issues, constant sexual assault and a suicide rate 25 times that of the general population.
In 2008, Gapka’s little lobby group helped get Ontario’s Liberal government to restore the funding for sex reassignment surgery that the Mike Harris Conservatives had cancelled. In 2012, it won changes to the province’s Vital Statistics Act which had required that people have “transsexual surgery” before they could change their birth registration. Also in 2012 came passage of NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo’s bill to amend Ontario’s Human Rights Code to include “gender identity” and “gender expression.”
Says DiNovo of Gapka, “She’s the best lobbyist I’ve ever met — proving it’s not about money spent, it’s about persistence.”
Critics denounce Bill C-279 as “The Bathroom Bill,” claiming it will allow “sexual predators” to commit “violent and sexual attacks” in public washrooms.
“The horrible things people say are evidence enough that we really need the bill,” says Gapka. “It’s already against the law to assault someone, whether they’re in a washroom, in a restaurant or on the street corner.”
So far, 15 Conservative MPs have supported the bill and, as long as they can withstand pressure groups such as Campaign Life Coalition and Family Action, the bill will squeak through.
When, if, it passes, Gapka will transition again, into full-time housing advocacy — and maybe politics.
“In some ways I am still a street fighter,” she says with a grin, adding that she’s “passing on the torch” of fighting for trans rights. “I survived the streets. It wasn’t easy. It was a long, hard, difficult struggle. It’s just a miracle that I made it through at all. I have been given this second chance at life and I am living every day like it could be my last. But I do feel that I have ground to cover. There is still so much more to do.”