Wikimedia Commons photo.

A safe space for gender support in the South Cariboo

‘I think the idea that we don’t talk about it has meant that we think it doesn’t exist’

The Cariboo Gender Support Group has been holding meetings for just over a year.

The fact that most people are unaware of the group’s existence is not exactly an accident. They haven’t gone out of their way to advertise or promote meeting times or locations, in order to maintain the safety of those wishing to attend.

Mikara Pettman, a support worker and one of the group’s founders, says support is especially essential for people with little or no representation in a community.

“I think the idea that we don’t talk about it has meant that we think it doesn’t exist.”

As a society, she says we don’t openly discuss gender identity, and may not even realize that gender identity development is a normal part of human development.

“Gender diverse people are everywhere, in all of our communities, and without having support, or feeling like there’s nowhere to go, it’s a very lonely experience.”

She says it’s “pretty amazing” to explore and understand that people experience gender differently and internally as they develop and interact with their environment.

It’s also “eye opening” to realize that “an essential part of who a human being is sometimes won’t be shared with other folks strictly because of safety, because of not knowing, not seeing themselves.”

RELATED: Former CAMH psychologist defends his work at youth gender identity clinic

Without support, she says she’s seen trans people become increasingly isolated.

“A good example is our public buildings. If they have the suit or the triangle, right, you only have those two bathroom options and they’re public washrooms, so you might walk in and there’s three stalls.”

She says a safer option for everybody would be a single-stall bathroom with no gender marker.

“In fact, we all do that because we all have that in our houses, don’t we. But for some reason we’ve gendered it (in public).”

Open conversation about the gender spectrum is still in its infancy in the South Cariboo, she says, and without education, trans people may seem unusual because others are ignorant of their experience.

Group co-founder Chris Pettman says he wasn’t surprised when trans people, allies and families started turning up at the support group.

“It’s been really wonderful to see the amount of people that are front-line social workers in town through other organizations that attend the meetings as well, so they get information and they can be educated on what’s happening and how to better navigate those waters.”

The Pettmans stressed that they do not speak on behalf of trans people. Instead, they are putting themselves out in the community as supportive allies.

Chris says they identified a gap, a need to support trans people in the Cariboo, about five or six years ago, and began educating themselves.

Having been brought up in a binary system, like most people, he says they’ve learned a lot about the gender spectrum in recent years through research by connecting with trans youth.

It’s young people, he says, who are “taking the lead on this initiative.

“The youth better understand the non-binary world, right, they see it as a spectrum, a whole wider lens,” so growing up becomes a normal process of finding where they fit on that spectrum. “It’s amazing the knowledge that they have.”

Mikara mirrors her husband’s respect and admiration for the up-and-coming young people in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“I think this generation is pretty badass,” she says. They’re using online resources to connect to people with shared experiences, and they’re developing words and language to discover and declare who they are in society.

She says other generations have seen people coming out in their 50s or 60s because they had no exposure to that language, or no representation until they found other trans people in larger cities.

“They’ve always been there,” she says, adding it’s a good thing more youth feel safe enough to reveal who they are.

RELATED: New support group for caregivers

Supporting Data

Police participating in the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey reported 16 hate crimes against transgender or asexual people from 2010 to 2016, according to Stats Canada.

Of the reported crimes, seven happened in 2016 alone.

The Canadian government adopted Bill C-16 in June of 2017, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code of Canada so gender expression and identity are formally recognized and protected.

Before 2017, gender identity and expression were not formally considered among “hate-motivating criteria” or included in the “identifiable group” definition for hate crimes.

A study conducted by the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC) of UBC revealed that 75 per cent of Canadian transgender youth surveyed reported harming themselves in the previous year, while 50 per cent experienced extreme stress in the previous 30 days and one-third had attempted suicide in the past year.

Half of the province’s transgender students (ages 14 to 18) reported school bullying and 65 per cent said they were taunted or ridiculed, while 44 per cent were physically threatened or injured within the previous year.

These stats drop down to “normative” levels when support is given to trans people, says Mikara, which is why the Pettmans started the support group.

Moving Forward

We can help make space for people to feel free to explore and be and express who they are by educating ourselves and connecting with one another, says Mikara.

She recently attended a workshop that examined where gender roles originate.

“It starts in childhood with how we treat children: boys here, girls here,” she says.

“A lot of times we’re reinforcing gender roles that actually create more distance between people instead of connecting them.” Instead of expecting people to fall within restrictive categories, she says we ought to ask ourselves if we’re being inclusive.

Chris notes that people have more in common than they do differences. He also stresses the importance of being patient with ourselves when learning new vocabulary and embracing new ideas.

If you wish to find out more information about the support group, you can email cariboo.gender@gmail.com.

Those wishing to begin educating themselves can visit phsa.ca/transcarebc/trans-basics/gender. To read more statistics from SARAVYC go to saravyc.ubc.ca/category/reports/.


beth.audet@100milefreepress.net

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