Missing the point

When the Ontario Provincial Police announced, in late September, that it would no longer identify the gender of victims and accused people, Sgt. Carolle Dionne said:

“It doesn’t matter if it was a male or a female who was an impaired driver or speeding down the highway, what matters is that we pulled them over and laid a charge.”

The OPP claims that its decision was based on the need to be “more progressive.” It also said that releasing gender information was not permitted by law, but that may not be exactly accurate.

According to a number of experts, including Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Elie Labaky, there are no such prohibitions in the Police Services Act, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Ontario Human Rights Code:

“I’m a bit alarmed and concerned because the policy is based on a poor interpretation of the law, quite frankly. . . . This approach is regressive and repressive.”

Hiding violence against women

It may be true that the gender of an intoxicated driver or a shoplifter or of the victims of such crimes is not relevant, but gender-based violence is all about gender: of both the alleged perpetrator and the victim.

The OPP’s policy change further obscures the reality of this violence: predominantly women (in which group I include anyone identifying as a woman) are subjected to it, and it is predominantly perpetrated by men.

As a recent editorial in the Toronto Star notes:

“[A]ll too often, reliable information about social problems just doesn’t exist, making it that much harder to come up with good solutions. Sadly, that is the case with gender-based violence. . . . The bottom line is that if gender-based violence isn’t measured, it can’t be addressed. Nor will it end.”

Heather Mallick writes:

“This is part of a strange trend, the erasure of women, and in this case the harm done to them by violent men. . . .Violent crime is overwhelmingly male and why pretend otherwise? Secrecy harms women.”

Myrna Dawson, the Director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory at the University of Guelph makes the point:

“The bottom line is, if they go this route, there is no way to track men’s violence against women and there’s no way to track homophobic violence.”

Words matter

Violence against women is already more than adequately obscured. We talk about “domestic violence,” “family violence,” “intimate partner abuse,” and “sexual assault,” none of which terms say what we are really talking about: acts of violence carried out by men against women and transgendered and non-binary folks.

Our laws – both criminal and family – are gender-neutral to such an extent that court outcomes are anything but just for survivors of gender-based violence.

We have to be able to collect accurate data to support appropriate policies and services to respond to gender-based violence.

Of course, it is important for police forces not to misidentify someone’s gender identity or to make assumptions about it based on the person’s name, size, voice or physical appearance. There is far too much of this, and every such misidentification is an assault on the dignity and equality rights of the person so misidentified.

Balancing interests and rights

Rights, responsibilities, equality: these are tough principles to line up with one another some of the time. It is easy for any of us, focused as we are on the issues confronting us personally, to see our rights and struggles for equality in a vacuum, as though no one else might be confronting the same issue from a different perspective. This never leads to a good outcome.

As Morgane Oder wrote a few months ago, commenting on a different situation:

“Believing this is a right isn’t equality – it’s believing that your equality is more equal than others’. It’s contrary to what trans people have fought for, in our own pursuit of truly equal rights.”

It seems to me there is a way forward that can respect both the rights of trans and non-binary people to be treated with respect and dignity and the need for the collection of gendered data, especially for those crimes that are gender-based. Police training would be a good place to start.

And then, why couldn’t the OPP implement a policy of asking both suspects and victims how they would like their gender-identity to be recorded?

Would this not provide respect and legitimacy to those who identify as trans or non-binary while also ensuring that we collect the data we need to understand gender-based violence properly, so our response will, eventually, lead to its eradication?

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