In 1995, Kimberly Nixon volunteered to be a rape counsellor.
Having come out of an abusive relationship with a man, she
wanted to help other women. However, the women's centre turned
Nixon away because "she" had once been "he."
Although Nixon had undergone a sex-change operation and
lived 19 years as a female, she was seen as not quite measuring
up to the centre's definition of "woman." Badly
hurt by the rejection, s/he considered suicide, but instead
lodged a Human Rights complaint against the Vancouver Rape
Relief Society. For six years the case wound its way through
the legal process. By the time the hearing ended Feb. 23,
the issue had boiled down to "who is a woman?" The
question is not as simple as it sounds.
Sexual identity in our culture is complex; since the first
sex-change operation in 1952, being female has ceased to be
just about female characteristics and clothing. When Michele
Landsberg asked, "If a man cuts off his penis, pumps
himself full of hormones, gets silicone breasts and electrolysis,
and stuffs his feet into high heels is he/she a woman?"
I cringed at the insensitive way she said it.
However, it's not an unreasonable question. I'm not alone,
I suspect, in being puzzled by the Nixon case and wondering
whether she is, as Landsberg suggests, just "someone
who wants to be a woman."
The Rape Relief Society is in a difficult position. It has
taken a stand on a topic few of us are prepared to discuss.
Christine Boyle, the law professor who represents the society,
is defending it on the basis that the issue is "not about
genitals" but about politics. Since there is no legal
definition of a woman, she argues, Rape Relief is entitled
to have a "political understanding" of what it is
that makes a woman. That understanding is in line with a definition
Landsberg has opted for; that being female is "a political
category created through oppression."
Rape Relief, since it was founded in 1973 as one of Canada's
first women-only centres for female victims of assault, has
been a focal point of feminist political activism, fighting
for rape shield laws and federal anti-violence measures, and
trying to influence custody and access decisions. And, in
all of its work with rape victims, Rape Relief has been teaching
the "political belief" that "male violence
is a symptom of a sexist society in which women are oppressed
by men. "
In its material and on its Web site, it tells women "what
we know to be the truth" -- that men enjoy positions
of power and privilege; are innately aggressive; are unworthy
of trust and must be feared. The hateful propaganda is so
explicit that Lee Lakesman, a staff person at the society,
is quoted as declaring that "every man is a potential
This political stance seems to be the essence of all feminist
counseling. Laura Brown, a psychologist who is widely regarded
as an expert in this area, sees our culture to be her ultimate
client and describes the therapeutic task as "the subversion
of the patriarchy in the client ... with the first responsibility
always to the project of ending oppression."
Evidently, this counseling is not so much about kindness
and caring as it is about luring injured and vulnerable women
into a supposedly safe environment where they can be indoctrinated
to replace their sense of what it is to be a woman with this
new political image. From this, it follows that the selection
of counsellors, such as those who work at Rape Relief, is
a matter not of gender but of ideology. Nixon was not rejected
so much because she was a transsexual but because she did
not fit the feminist image of who (or what) a woman is. As
Rape Relief staff have stated: "she did not share the
same life experiences as women who are born females and have
been oppressed by men."
Obviously, I and countless other women who don't see ourselves
as oppressed victims and insist on seeing men as individuals
and equals -- no better and no worse -- wouldn't fit this
image either. The issue that the tribunal must address is
whether individuals like myself and others are women, or is
it that women are those who hold in common a sense of victim
mentality, an unshakable belief in male violence and a militant
dedication to a political cause?
Judy Rebick, the former president of the National Action
Committee on the Status of Women, views Rape Relief to be
"a model feminist service." Testifying at the hearing,
she defended its decision by placing the issue in the broader
context of decades of political activism. Outside of the hearing
room, she commented that the question "goes to the very
heart of what the women's movement is and what feminism is."
If so, then what is at the heart of feminism is not a peaceful
mission to reach out and help other women but rather an aggressive
effort to recruit women as anti-male warriors. In seeking
the answer to the difficult question of "who is a woman,"
we would be well advised to ignore the feminist mumbo jumbo
about victimhood and oppression and listen to Helen Reddy's
anthem: "I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman."