By Laura Brightwell
May 10, 2016
On the evening of Monday May 2, Canada’s only sex reassignment surgery clinic was subject to an arson attack. A man, armed with a machete, axe and gas can, set fire to the operating room.
Constable Abdullah Emran of the Montreal police has stated they are treating the incident as a potential hate crime "because this is the only clinic that does [gender confirmation surgery], but at this point we have nothing that confirms it is related to that."
Press were remarkably slow to respond, with reporting coming in late and often with no mention of the work the clinic does. Social media has also been slow on the uptake with its reaction to this crime.
Attack directly impacts transgender Canadians waiting for surgery
The Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie in Montréal offers sex reassignment surgeries, more often called gender confirmation surgery, to transgender Canadians. The arson attack caused an estimated $700,000 worth of damage and put the clinic temporarily out of action.
In a statement, the clinic said they were "forced to cancel surgeries scheduled between Tuesday, May 3, and Friday, May 6, 2016." Other surgeries are currently being performed at an alternate location. Although the damage isn’t permanent, it is yet to be determined when the clinic will reopen.
For many gender confirmation procedures, the Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie is the only clinic in Canada that accepts patients referred by provincial health-care programs. Sex reassignment surgeries are at least partially funded by eight of Canada’s provinces, although not all of these provinces cover all types of gender confirmation procedures.
The Montréal clinic is the only clinic in Canada that provides both male-to-female and female-to-male gender confirmation surgery. Trans people travel from both Canada and the U.S. for surgery at the clinic.
The arson attack is directly impacting transgender Canadians waiting to have gender confirmation surgery, some who have already waited years for access to this vital service.
One patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, is scheduled to have gender confirmation surgery at the clinic later this year. They state they are "livid at the lack of support for and acknowledgement of" the incident. "I have been waiting for this surgery for three years and some queer allies said they didn’t even know this clinic existed, which is a slap in the face."
Ontario has recently expanded access to gender confirmation surgery by expanding the list of providers allowed to refer patients under its provincial health insurance plan-. The Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie remains, however, the main site for these surgeries, funneling more patients to the clinic and potentially increasing wait times.
Delayed access to these procedures is shown to increase rates of suicidal ideation among Canada’s trans population.
Lack of response reflective of transphobia?
Word of the attack spread via social media, but with relatively little uptake. Initial coverage by the press neglected to mention the kind of work the clinic does and it also failed to raise the importance of the clinic’s status as the sole option for trans Canadians seeking sex reassignment surgery.
Montreal-based trans-rights advocate Sophia Banks, who asked people to spread word about the attack, notes the press’ failure to connect the attack to trans Canadians’ vulnerable status: "If someone tried to burn down planned parenthood we know the motive. But when a trans clinic gets torched it’s ’motive unknown,’" Banks wrote on twitter.
The lack of response to the incident from within the LGBTQ community is also striking. Other challenges to trans rights, such as North Carolina’s "bathroom bill," have elicited a strong response on social media. However, the Montreal incident remains largely unacknowledged by Canada’s LGBTQ community.
"There was zero reaction [from] the community," Banks states. She believes this lack of interest is reflective of transphobia in the cisgender -queer community. "Trans people don’t really matter. The fact that we only have one clinic in all of Canada is a good example of that. We’re just such a small minority, people don’t care."
Banks also thinks it’s easier for Canadians to criticize transphobia in the U.S. rather than look at the situation for trans people in Canada. "It’s easier to point the finger at the States."
While it may be tempting to play the incident down given the motive is yet unknown, its symbolism to Canada’s trans community is not lost on many onlookers.
If nothing else, this attack has demonstrated the importance of opening more clinics to provide these procedures for trans Canadians. "If they had succeeded in burning it down, think what a disaster this would have been for trans health care," says Banks.
Trans health care can save people’s lives, but to do that it has to be available.
Laura Brightwell likes to think of herself as a writer. She is currently a PhD candidate at York University