Women's groups have right to decide who belongs, feminist says

Wednesday, December 20, 2000

by Glenn Born, Vancouver Sun, December 19, 2000

A prominent Canadian feminist defended on Monday the Vancouver Rape Relief Society's decision to bar a former male from counselling females who have been abused by males.

Writer and broadcaster Judy Rebick, a former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, told a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal that minority women's groups have the right to decide who belongs to them.

In the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, for example, she said lesbians, and women of colour formed their own caucus groups to help correct a power imbalance in the national women's organization.

 "We recognized that white, heterosexual, middle-class women had more privilege and power," she testified. "There was an unbalance, even once that was recognized."

Rebick said the caucus groups are an empowering instrument, so the people in a caucus have to define who is part of their caucus.

At a quasi-judicial hearing in the Vancouver Law Courts Courts complex, the provincial human rights tribunal is hearing evidence and arguments that test the right of sexually politicized support groups to determine who should be a1lowed to help with such such things as one-to-one counselling of rape victims. Kimberly Nixon, 43, the former man or transgendered woman, says she has been living as a woman for 19 years. Nixon is seeking $10,000 from Rape Relief and other remedies after Rape Relief members barred, her from a training course for volunteer peer counsellors.

Nixon testified earlier that she signed on to the course in 1995 after recovering from an abusive relationship with a man Nixon said she felt humiliated and suicidal when she was called aside during a training session, asked about her sex-change operation, and told that volunteers could only be women who had the experience of being treated as female since birth.

The non-profit society maintains it is not violating B.C. Human Rights Code prohibitions against sex discrimination for job applicants, because Rape Relief is justified in requiring that counsellors have a life-long experience of being treated as girls and then women who have experienced male violence.

The Vancouver Rape Relief Society, founded in 1973, is one of Canada's first women-run organizations for female victims of physical and sexual assault. Twenty-eight counsellors and political activists help women at a home in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

During an interview after her testimony, Rebick described the society as a model feminist service that has played a major national role in fighting violence against women.

To Rebick the basic issue raised by the human rights complaint is whether womcn-only groups have a right to determine who their members are. The complaint also raises the question of the definition of a woman, she said.

Lee Lakeman of Vancouver Rape Relief agreed. "Kim Nixon lived as a man for 30 years'" Lakeman said. "If Kim Nixon lives until 60 as a woman, I'd be interested in reopening the question [of whether he can be a Rape Relief volunteer].

"But what I'm stuck with is that he's lived half of his life, and all of his childhood, as a man. Until that's not a question, I dont see any debate here."

Meanwhile, Craig Jones, president of the B.C.Civil Liberties Association, said the "everexpanding jurisdiction" of the B.C. human rights commission and its tribunals is cause for concern.

In the United States and other countries, human rights decisions are made in court, where defendants have the protection of due process and evidentiary rules.

"There is a concern that the same might not apply to human rights tribunals " Jones said.

The tribunal does the best it can, he said, but in many cases the association would prefer the decisions be made in court.

The courts are always open to those who disagree with a tribunal ruling, said Harinder Mahil, deputy chief commissioner of the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which is supporting Kimberly Nixon in her case.

Adjudicators have a legal background with an expertise in human rights, he said.

"We can be very proud that this is a tribunal that is not afraid to make tough decisions," Mahil said.