November 4, 2020 Update:
On March 14, 2019, days after their International Women’s Day event, the City of Vancouver Council voted to to provide termination funding for Vancouver Rape Relief. This decision was specifically regarding VRR’s explicit exclusion of trans, gender variant, and Two Spirit people from their services and organization as well as their stance against sex workers, both of which are in direct opposition to the City of Vancouver’s policies. VRR was given one year to make appropriate changes to align with the grant eligibility criteria. On February 26, 2020, it was determined that VRR has refused to make appropriate changes to be eligible for the Direct Social Services Grant and was denied further funding.
It should also be noted that Kanahus Manuel withdrew from VRR’s International Women’s Day event after concerns were brought forward to her from many community members. It is unclear if anyone else withdrew, but it should be noted that Kayah George specifically made comments at the event in support of trans people.
This letter now serves to provide information and education for anyone unaware of Vancouver Rape Relief’s oppressive history, especially with regard to Two Spirit, trans Indigenous peoples.
March 8, 2019
My name is Tami Starlight. I am Cree/Nehiyawak and Norwegian from Peguis Nation (Treaty 1 territory), in what is colonially known as Manitoba, Canada. I am Two Spirit, trans, queer, low-income, disabled and currently residing on unceded Coast Salish territory (Musqueam, Squamish & Tsleil-Waututh nations), in what is colonially known as Vancouver, Canada.
I am writing as a long-time community organizer in this region (almost 20 years) (anti-poverty, anti-drug war, and anti-homelessness organizing in the Downtown Eastside1 2 3, environmental/renewable energy work4, alternative media5, trans community organizing6, and anti-oppression work7, to name a few), and as someone who has lived experience with homelessness, addiction8, incarceration, and sex work. I am also a member and co-founder of Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA), whom I am speaking on behalf of.
I recently learned that six Indigenous cis women have been invited as speakers for an event hosted by Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR). I feel it is my responsibility to inform the speakers and the wider community of the history of this organization and the harms that continue to be perpetrated by its leadership over the past 30 years in our community.
VRR sees itself as a rape crisis centre for women. However, those who have lived long enough in this city and who have organized around feminism and violence against women know that VRR has proven themselves to operate using exclusionary and oppressive ideology. They will not provide services to trans women, nor will they accept trans women as volunteers9 10. They have turned away women seeking to access their resources because the women are drug users, and have been patronizing and unsupportive of survivors/victims who attempt to access their resources are sex workers. If lesbian or queer women are assaulted by other women and seek VRR’s services, they are turned away. Many women who have been turned away and who are a combination of the above identities are also Indigenous women. (Much of the above information, unfortunately, does not have media sources, as this information is only known through the lived experience of women who have attempted to access VRR’s services or who have formerly volunteered for VRR and passed it on through community whisper networks.)
VRR and its leadership see themselves as “radical feminists” and firmly and openly believe that trans women are men. They also conflate consensual, by-choice sex work with sex trafficking. Most community organizers and organizations in Vancouver (including, but not limited to, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW)11, PACE Society, West Coast LEAF12, BC Federation of Labour (BCFED)13 14, BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), and others15) recognize them as TERFs and SWERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists and sex worker exclusionary radical feminists16) and, thankfully, refuse to work with VRR, fund them, support them or refer survivors/victims to them. The majority of VRR’s volunteers and supporters are people from the mainstream – those who are new to Vancouver, those who are new to feminism, or those who already align with their ideology.
VRR’s leadership comprises of women who are cisgender, mostly heterosexual, white settlers. They tokenize the few cisgender women of colour (including Black and Indigenous) who share their views to present themselves as having broad support. One of their key tactics involves convening a group of people who align on a specific topic together, and then frame these folks as supporters of VRR’s overall ideology (anti-trans and anti-sex worker). Sadly, one Indigenous woman in particular has been used by them to discredit the existence of Two Spirit, trans, and queer Indigenous people, including recently.17
This past January, a local TERF/SWERF named Meghan Murphy hosted an event in Vancouver18 19 where the Executive Director of VRR, Lee Lakeman, was a guest speaker20. Murphy runs an online hate-rag, FeministCurrent. It is a platform for her hatred and bigotry toward trans people — especially trans women — sex workers, and feminists of colour21. She travels (mostly to the UK, USA, and Australia) and makes money by speaking at various events where she spews misinformation, stokes fear and confusion, and incites violence. She is considered a significant factor for the current uprising of anti-trans bigotry in the UK22, where she is highly regarded. Murphy is also connected to Deep Green Resistance (DGR)23, an eco-fascist group whose leaders, Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, have been denounced by student, eco, and Indigenous groups23 for DGR’s trans antagonist, racist, and overall oppressive ideologies25.
VRR and Murphy have a long history together and have played both sides of so-called Canada’s colonial criminal legal system. When legislation was being passed to to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression (Bill C-16), both Murphy and representatives of VRR flew to Ottawa, sitting alongside a Christian fundamentalist, in unsuccessful attempts to block and speak against the bill.26 27 VRR also used their resources to push for Bill C-36, legislation which reintroduces the same harms as the previous laws while making it more difficult for sex workers to work in safer indoor locations.28
The talk held in January was denounced by various LGBTQ organizations, sex worker advocates, community groups and individuals19. Letters were written to the Vancouver Public Library to cancel the space rental with Murphy, and a protest rally took place. VPL did not cancel the event on the grounds of free speech, and at the same time publicly stated that they do not agree with Murphy’s discriminatory views19. Despite public outcry, VRR continues to strongly associate themselves with Murphy.
There are various initiatives currently being undertaken by individuals, community groups, and non-profit organizations to challenge the oppression and harm that TERFs & SWERFs like VRR are responsible for in our communities. Part of this includes redirecting social capital and financial support from VRR to rape crisis centres such as WAVAW, who intentionally seek to do their work rooted in an inclusive, anti-oppressive, intersectional, and decolonial framework. We believe that no survivor of sexual assault should ever have to experience further trauma, violence and oppression while seeking resources and services.
It is important to emphasize that, aside from pushing for harmful policies in all levels of government, TERF/SWERF ideology poses real, direct, material harms to trans people, especially trans women, and sex workers. The promotion and platforming of this ideology validates the misinformed fears about trans people in society, presenting us as perverted, mentally ill, and/or violent – reaching our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbours. It also creates unsafe, hostile, and violent conditions for trans people and sex workers to exist in.
Trans women, in Vancouver and also abroad, have been doxxed – their deadnames (former names), photos, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers, and workplaces have been posted online without their permission. These women are constantly harassed and receive death threats. I, myself, have a photo online posted by a TERF/SWERF from Victoria, B.C. exclaiming that I am a “white man pretending to be an Indigenous woman”.29 Some women have even ended their own lives because of this.
“Top right is We’wha who was a Lhamana two-spirit of the Zuni nation. The Zuni people once had four traditional gender roles which include lhamana and katotse. They also have a Kachina or Zuni spirit named Ko’lhamana, a divine androgynous spirit who is said to appear when the people and the land are in desperate need of help. We’wha herself was a dedicated caregiver, craftsmaker, and a cultural ambassador of the Zuni people and went to DC to meet with President Grover.
Bottom left is presumably Osh-Tisch with her wife in the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation. The Crow’s third gender or Two-Spirit people are traditionally known in their language as Boté or Badé. Osh-Tisch was a master craftsmaker just like We’wha, and she was also a leader. She was one of the last of the Crow nation’s Boté people in antiquity just after her people were forced into the reservation. The Boté people, including Osh-Tisch, were brutally enslaved by Briskow from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also the Baptist missionary was especially cruel to her Boté community, and they did everything they could to wipe out the cultural memory of Boté two-spirits in the Crow nation after Osh-Tisch’s death in 1929.” – Julius Areola
It is no accident that so-called feminists who are entrenched in anti-trans, anti-sex worker bigotry network with and organize alongside white supremacists and anti-LGBTQ groups30. Many Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour have made the connections between trans antagonism and white supremacy, and how both are rooted in colonialism31. It is ironic, then, for groups like VRR to present themselves as allies to Indigenous peoples while simultaneously ignoring Two Spirit voices and endorsing the harmful narrative of us not existing or being real, despite experience and evidence pointing to otherwise32 33 34 35.
People who promote hatred, bigotry, and violence deserve no platform, space or credibility in our movements for social justice and must be held accountable, especially those who claim to be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and our struggles for self-determination and autonomy. Two Spirit, trans, queer Indigenous people exist. Some of us are sex workers. Some of us are homeless, poor, and low-income. Some of us are incarcerated or have been. Some of us are drug users. Many of us are still uncovering and reclaiming identities lost through colonization. All of us deserve to be a part of the circle and to be protected from violence and harm.
I am asking for those invited to speak at this event to:
- Denounce Vancouver Rape Relief and their anti-trans, anti-sex worker ideology;
- Affirm the diversity of gender identity and gender expression of people around the world, especially those who are reclaiming identities and roles lost, erased, and vilified due to colonization;
- Redirect the funds received from this speaking engagement to trans and sex worker communities (I suggest PACE Society, who hire and also work directly with Indigenous Two Spirit, trans women who are also sex workers36).
My motivation for this communication is to, at the very least, provide information for greater awareness and so that those invited to participate in VRR’s events, now and in the future, can make a fuller, more informed decision. There are many others who can give their own perspectives with regard to this organization and the greater impacts of TERF/SWERF ideology here in so-called Vancouver. I hope we can have these conversations as a community and continue to expose the harms that VRR is responsible for.
With respect, rage, and solidarity.
All our relations,
1 Future of Downtown Eastside: Inside the Planning Process
* please note the link is a snapshot from August 10, 2016. the live version can be found here: https://donotlink.it/yNPw.
2 Pidgin protesters target new Vancouver restaurant
4 Greenpeace (Canada) occupies Enbridge office in downtown Vancouver
5 The Sinixt Nation: “We are still here”
6 B.C. cities mark international Trans Day of Remembrance — some for the first time
7 decolonization | The Anti-Oppression Network
8 Spirit Matters and HIV
9 Fighting to do a woman’s work
10 Rape Relief wins
11 How do we refuse complicity with transphobia when it’s conflated with feminism?
12 Ending Sexual Assault
13 VRR is open with it’s anti-trans practices and philosophy. @BCTF stands with @BCFED and other affiliates in no longer supporting VRR. Here is our statement on trans-inclusion: https://bctf.ca/publications/B…
14 Supporting trans-inclusive organizations
15 No Unity with Transmisogynists or Sex Work Prohibitionists: AAD’s position on Vancouver Rape Relief
16 The TERFs
17 Fay Blaney on gender identity and Indigenous cultures at the Vancouver Public Library
* please note that I am intentionally linking to a snapshot/web archive of FeministCurrent. If you feel the need to look at the live version, please use this link https://donotlink.it/pLQk.
18 Meghan Murphy speaks to sold-out crowd in Vancouver Public Library meeting room
19 Feminist speaker deemed ‘anti-trans’ by critics speaks at Vancouver Public Library
20 Gender Identity Ideology & Women’s Rights: A talk & Q&A
21 We demand that Rabble.ca end your association with Meghan Murphy as editor and columnist.
22 How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans
23 People & Groups Archives: Journalists » Meghan Murphy
* please note that the web archive snapshot is from 2016 and there has since been continued writing from Murphy on DGR’s website. If you feel the need to visit the live version please use: https://donotlink.it/vQjL
24 Student, Eco and Indigenous Groups Oppose Transphobia at Conference
25 Deep Green Transphobia
26 Legal and Constitutional Affairs – May 10, 2017
27 When Toxic Radical “Feminism” and (Christian) Fundamentalism Converge
28 Bill C-36 hearings told not to conflate prostitution and trafficking
* please note that the web archive snapshot is from February 2019. If you feel the need to visit the site, please use this link: https://donotlink.it/7P7L
30 Anti-Trans Feminists Appear at Panel of Right-Wing Heritage Foundation
31 Transphobia is a White Supremacist Legacy of Colonialism
32 Language, culture, and Two-Spirit identity.
33 Reclaiming Spaces Between: Coast Salish Two Spirit Identities and Experiences
34 OSKISIHCIKÊWAK / NEW TRADITIONS IN CREE TWO-SPIRIT, GAY AND QUEER NARRATIVES
35 Letter from the Zapatista Women to Women in Struggle Around the World http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2019/02/13/letter-from-the-zapatista-women-to-women-in-struggle-around-the-world/
36 ‘I’m grateful and happy’