“The lives of trans youth are important. That’s all there is to it.”
Since 2020, Cee Strauss has been a staff lawyer with the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), one of Canada’s leading legal information and advocacy organizations. In that time, they’ve worked hard to make feminism—and Canada—a safer and more hospitable place for trans and non-binary people. And with Saskatchewan passing anti-trans legislation into law, they’re far from finished.
The genderqueer lawyer “came up in a community of queer and trans activism in Montreal that really contributed to my political formation,” Strauss says, “and that helped me frame my life and understand who I was in the context of the place where I live.”
It was in Montreal where Strauss joined the Prisoner Correspondence Project, which connects imprisoned LGBTQ2S+ people with similarly identified pen pals outside of prison. “There were a lot of questions from people in prison about their legal rights,” Strauss reflects; “both about … the reasons that got them in prison, but more generally about prison conditions and about what was happening to them in prison and how to fight it.”
Motivated to help, Strauss went to law school at McGill University in order “to advocate better for prisoners’ rights” and prison abolition.
Making feminism more trans-inclusive
Strauss “bounced around” after law school, in Toronto and in Montreal; working first with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, then in criminal defence for a short while, then with a housing rights law firm, then as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada under Justice Sheilah L. Martin. Finally, in 2020, they found themself working as a staff lawyer at LEAF.
In that role, Strauss and their colleagues “think about what law reform projects, or what litigation, we can get involved in that will help to advance the equality rights of women, girls and trans and non-binary people.”
LEAF doesn’t bring its own lawsuits. It “intervenes” in existing ones, “which is asking the court to let us get involved in the case as what’s called a ‘friend of the court’ to help them understand a particular legal issue.”
While LEAF almost exclusively gets involved in equality rights cases, the organization hasn’t always been a leader when it comes to defending trans rights under the Canadian constitution. In fact, this is a recent development for the organization.
LEAF “is a historically women’s rights organization,” Strauss says, “so the work that we’ve been doing to be in solidarity with trans and non-binary people advocating for their own rights takes time. What we’ve had to do first is reckon with [LEAF’s] own transphobic history” as an organization that traditionally advocated only for the rights of cisgender women.
LEAF only changed its mandate to explicitly and publicly include trans and non-binary people in its advocacy in 2022. Staff, some of them trans and non-binary themselves, had been pushing for the change to occur. Strauss was instrumental in seeing it through to fruition.
The second major step, after coming to terms with LEAF’s problematic history, was to think about who in LEAF’s own networks needed to be consulted before the change came into effect.
Then it was a matter of training staff and stakeholders—some of whom were trans and non-binary themselves—in “Trans Inclusion 201,” in order to ensure that everyone was on the same page about what being trans-inclusive feminists really meant. That meant covering everything from “basic terms related to gender identity” to “equality rights and discrimination case law focusing on trans and non-binary people’s rights.”
“And we did it,” Strauss says, “we changed the mandate. And then it was, like, ‘what now’? And that was … relationship-building … with other queer and trans rights organizations that are doing the work, and not ever wanting to take the lead, but rather to be in solidarity with whatever it is they are seeing as most important at the time.”
In practice, relationship-building has meant getting together with other Canadian feminist and women’s rights organizations, like the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and Wisdom2Action, on an informal basis “to ensure that the trans-exclusionary parts of mainstream and historically women-serving organizations are addressed properly” and no one trans-inclusive feminist organization is “left alone to be dealing with the vitriol that comes out of trans-exclusionary people, which is what often happens.”
Fighting for trans lives in Saskatchewan
LEAF has already had an opportunity to put its mandate change into action.
In August, the government of Saskatchewan announced a policy that would require students under the age of 16 to obtain parental consent before changing their name or pronouns at school. The UR Pride Centre for Sexuality and Gender Diversity sued, arguing that the policy infringes on Canadians’ right to life, liberty and security of the person; and to equality under the law.
The policy will cost trans lives if it’s implemented. Which is why LEAF is intervening to prevent that from happening.
But that doesn’t mean UR Pride’s case is moot. There’s good reason to think the legislation violates Section 28 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prevents governments from discriminating on the basis of gender, and can’t be overridden by the notwithstanding clause.
And in any event, Strauss says, “one of the lawyers for UR Pride said in court that he anticipates that he’ll receive instructions to proceed with litigation in respect of the new law … it seems as though the case isn’t necessarily going to go away.”
Which is good. Because the case is an important one.
“What’s happening [with this policy] is that a very small part of the population, which is, you know, trans and non-binary students under 16 who have such a horrible home environment that they will not get parental consent for their names and pronouns to be respected—those people are going to have their equality rights fundamentally violated,” Strauss explains. And that’s exactly the sort of thing the Charter is built to protect against.
Strauss is instrumental in seeing LEAF’s intervention in the UR Pride case through to completion. And the intervention is “important because there’s clearly a rise in anti-trans hate right now in Canada, and we need to fight it with everything we have.”
“The law is not the place where social transformation happens,” Strauss acknowledges. “But when there’s an unconstitutional thing like this that is going to be severely, detrimentally, affecting trans and non-binary youth, going to court to challenge it is extremely important, especially because it will prevent other provinces—hopefully—from trying the same thing.”
And that’s exactly why Strauss and LEAF are going to court to fight for the lives of trans youth.