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Friday FTW: Pakistan celebrates transgender candidates in election

Catherine McIntyre

Transgender candidates are running for office for the first time in the country’s history. In this country? God no (com’on—Canada just passed legislation allowing trans people to use the public washroom of their choice)—they’re running for office in Pakistan.

Turns out the developing country has Canada beat when it comes to certain gender rights.

Here—and in most of the world—official identification cards (like passports and birth certificates) have only “male” and “female” options. When a trans person goes to vote, for example, they have to register as one or the other gender. Without doctor’s affidavits confirming gender reassignment surgery, this usually means registering as the gender that matches their genitalia at birth—not the one they identify as. But even with gender reassignment procedures, some people don’t strictly identify as either male or female—and yet, they are forced to choose one or the other. Last spring, Passport Canada reviewed the option to include a gender “X” or for people to opt-out of specifying their gender altogether. But so far, nothing has changed.

In 2011, a Pakistani Supreme Court allowed people to identify as a “third gender” on national identification cards. This gave the trans community voting power. Before legislation passed, transgender people could technically vote and run for office, but only if they registered as the gender they were anatomically born as. This is an understandablyunacceptable requirement for trans people—one most were, rightly, unwilling to comply with. Now candidates can run openly as transgender—a huge victory for the LGBT community and also one voters in trans’ constituencies are embracing.

Media coverage of Pakistan’s campaign shows positive support for trans candidates. There’s something relatable with the candidates—a shared hardship between them and voters—many of whom are poor and underrepresented by government. Brindiya Rana, leader of the Gender Interactive Alliance and candidate in the upcoming election, ran away from home at age 14 when her family didn’t except her as a transgender woman. She spent time on the street before turning to activism and politics. One woman in Rana’s constituency has put her support this way: “We believe that being poor like us, she may understand our issues better.”

Yes, transgender people are valued in Pakistani culture, but acceptance isn’t exactly built on equality. Trans women are hired as dancers at celebrations like weddings, where they face groping men. Blessing babies is considered another acceptable role for trans men and women because, in Pakistan, they’re considered underprivileged, and apparently the less fortunate have special connections with God. Mostly, though, as is the sad case in the rest of the world,  transgender people face harassment and abuse; many in Pakistan wind up as beggars or as prostitutes.

Now with the right to vote and run for office, the transgender community has a new avenue of opportunity—one that does not enslave them to predetermined, often degrading roles. They can vote for a leader who represents their interests, or even be that leader.

From a Canadian perspective, this may seem progressive. But transgender people running for office is nothing new. Sarah Brown has been a Cambridge City Councillor in Britain since 2010. And in Japan, Aya Kamikawa has been in office since 2003. She was re-elected in 2007, placing second out of 71 candidates in Tokyo’s most populous district. And there are dozens more trans politicians around the world.

Canada, with less success, has also had trans political hopefuls. In 2011, Chrisitin Milloy ran in the Mississauga–Brampton South riding as the first openly trans candidate in a provincial election. In 2007, activist and lawyer Micheline Anne Montreuil was a federal NDP nominee for the Quebec-City riding. She was dropped from the campaign, however, for being too confrontational in interviews. But Montreuil says it was because of her gender identity. Either way, at the time dumping her based on gender (or anything for that matter) would have been legal, because—until the transgender rights bill passed last month—there was no legislation protecting trans people from discrimination.

Although the bill only passed with a measly 53 percent support, it’s nice to see Canada (finally) recognizing that being transgender is not a “reasonable limit” to the Charter of Rights and Freedom—it’s not a free pass for discrimination. It’s not anywhere near enough, though. We must go further and take some cues from Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Australia (among others) with “third gender” rights. Let people represent themselves and welcome everyone—regardless of gender identity—into politics. It’s simple really. All it takes is putting to practice this theory we have about equal rights for all Canadians.

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