Excerpt: Cheri DiNovo’s ‘The Queer Evangelist’

In her new book, minister and former politician Cheri DiNovo remembers Toby Dancer — and the efforts to make trans rights human rights
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on May 18, 2021
Cheri DiNovo on The Agenda With Steve Paikin, May 18, 2021

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Toby Dancer, who’d died while she was music director at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church, was the name I’d put on a bill adding “Gender Identity and Gender Expression” to the Ontario Human Rights Code as a protected entity. Many trans activists, including Susan Gapka, had been looking for an MPP willing to put forward a bill, and I was more than willing. I wanted to memorialize Toby, and what better way than by enshrining trans rights as human rights. We would be the first major jurisdiction in North America to do so. It was time.

Toby’s Law had been reintroduced time and again, after every election. The government kept saying the same thing, “Trans rights are already covered,” even though the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a Liberal, disagreed. Yet the times had changed. Back in 1971, I’d been the only woman to sign the “We Demand” statement. By 2012, the list of actions called for in that statement were almost all won or partially won.

With Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1969 federally, but that hadn’t come close to ensuring equal rights for LGBTQ2S people. The “We Demand” outlined what would begin to accomplish equal rights. Trans, two-spirited, and queer people, however, were still omitted from our understanding. Nevertheless, what we’d asked for and seen as almost utopian at the time had been accomplished. We were still waiting on an official apology from the military when I tabled Toby’s Law yet again (the military apology came later, in 2017), but we’d accomplished enormous change. It was time for trans rights.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Some four tablings later, having heard all the government’s excuses, I knew even they were beginning to cave. This time I tabled it as a tri-party bill with co-signatories: Yasir Naqvi, Liberal; and Christine Elliott, Conservative. The fifth time was the charm, and the tri-party format was the key. Those on the government benches were afraid to see the NDP march with Toby’s Law signs in the upcoming Pride parade. They were finally sensitive to any perception of transphobia. Imagine that! We had come a long way.

Under huge pressure, the government had just brought in a law necessitating the formation of gay-straight alliances in schools just before we tabled Toby’s Law; however, it was Peter Tabuns and I, along with a long list of queer organizations, who demanded these groups be called gay-straight alliances and not hidden under a less upfront name. For the first time, the queer-bashing and bullying that had always been present in our schools was being recognized as the deadly activity it was. LGBTQ2S kids were killing themselves. But prevailing attitudes were shifting. What had been seen as too revolutionary in the 1970s, even by queer revolutionaries, had become a possibility.

Toby’s Law passed second reading in the same year, 2012, and I knew it would become law in time for Pride in June, a parade at which I was delighted to be named grand marshal. LGBTQ2S rights were making strides! The government had already relisted sex-reassignment surgeries in 2008, so that they could be covered by our Medicare system, another signal we were going to win. Again, our trans activists across the province were finally being taken seriously.

In the press, Toby’s Law, when it actually became law, was a tiny sidebar, though we were the only major jurisdiction in all of North America to have added trans rights to human rights. It should have been huge news. For the first time a trans person could legally resist being fired or evicted because they were trans.

Not being taken seriously is something women and trans folk understand. We were almost always sidebar issues. Domestic violence continues, however, and continues to rise. In 2019, almost four women in Canada were killed a day through domestic violence. In the queer community, sexism, racism, and transphobia are an issue. Gay men had become a stereotype as every girl’s best friend in sitcoms and movies, but not so much lesbians. Straight-male porn was where you’d find “lesbians.” Bisexuals were invisible, and trans roles, if they existed at all, were played by straight men. But who cared about the press? I was elated. Finally, Toby’s memory was honoured and a human-rights bill had become law.

The rights won by Toby’s Law represented a major victory. The law impacted the way our entire province did business, everything from identity cards to prison practice. I don’t believe for an instant that the government realized the scope of that one change to the Human Rights Code. I’m glad they didn’t look too closely. In the years since the bill was first tabled, it had moved from “fringe” and impossible to necessary. None of that just happened. All of it took concerted efforts of activists on the ground as well as political manoeuvring. The battle was won in increments.

Waving at the thousands at the Pride parade that year perched on the back of a convertible, I ruminated that it had only taken me 41 years of queer activism to get there. I didn’t feel the slightest resentment. For most queer activists, there is never an accolade and very often imprisonment or death. I was beyond lucky. Toby wasn’t.

I held Toby in prayer that Pride year and wondered what she would have thought of it all. I wished she’d been there to witness third reading and then royal assent. A true introvert, Toby would have been profoundly embarrassed by the focus. Toby, who’d been so victimized. She was a victim of psychiatric, economic, and religious systems that were profoundly damaging. Toby had won that year and would never know it, but I like to think we’ll meet again, and I can fill her in over some Cristal and laughs. Toby’s actual ashes were always with me at the Legislature and are with me still. Passing that bill was way better than any memorial.

Since then, some of her ashes have been strewn in Los Angeles at the House of Blues, at a drop-in for queer youth in Toronto called Toby’s Place, and around various jazz and blues venues. Toby’s stained-glass window is still at Roncesvalles United Church, and trans folk still have their photo taken in front of it. A small commemorative plaque outlining Toby’s Law is beside it. Very infrequently someone who knew her will call me, and even less frequently, someone will ask for some of her ashes for remembrance. None of her family has ever inquired. We had become her family. Every trans person who exercises their trans rights in Ontario, and now in Canada, carries her legacy.

Excerpted from The Queer Evangelist by Cheri DiNovo. Copyright © 2021 Cheri DiNovo. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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