Star public editor: Is transgender rights letter a hoax?

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

I cannot tell you with absolute certainty that a letter published recently in the Star’sEthically Speaking” column from a “senior” woman recounting the inappropriate sexual behaviour of a transgender woman in a Y change room is not a hoax concocted for political purposes.

I can tell you I have telephoned and talked to the North York woman whose name is on the email sent to Star ethics columnist Ken Gallinger in October. I have also confirmed that the YMCA of Greater Toronto received a similar letter from a former member in late fall. Last week, an executive of the organization contacted the same North York woman I talked with.

If this woman’s letter was a hoax perpetuated by organized forces opposed to transgender rights, as many in the transgender community through North America and beyond have declared with all certainty, then it is indeed a grand and elaborate one played on both the Star and the YMCA.

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The woman would not agree to come forward publicly for this column. She spoke confidentially to me, in line with her expectation of confidentiality in the ethics column. “I am asking the Star to protect my privacy,” she said. “I would not rest easy if any group decided to approach me personally.”

She told me she is 70. She said the incident she described in her letter to Gallinger in which a naked “man” claiming to be a transgender woman behaved inappropriately happened “a couple of years ago” in the late afternoon in the women’s locker room of the Toronto Y on Sheppard Ave.

She said she shared her concerns with the Y manager at the time but felt she was not taken seriously. She said the branch manager contacted her in the fall after she sent her letter and she was again contacted by a senior executive of the Y following publication of the Star column.

YMCA spokesman Celecia Partap confirmed this week that the Y did receive a similar letter in the fall from “a former female member” about an incident that was “historical in nature.” Partap said the Y has no record of any formal complaint about the incident the woman described and that the general manager of the Y where the woman used to swim had no recollection of a past complaint.

This woman is aware of accusations her letter is a hoax. To that she said: “I have no agenda, just an incident. Why would anyone lie?”

This is where things get political. Stoking fear about transgender persons in bathrooms is a key nasty ploy of conservative groups opposed to human rights for trans people. As well, conservative media organizations in the U.S. have been called out for reporting fake stories about transgender persons harassing people in washrooms.

In Canada, Bill C-279, a bill to include transgender rights in our anti-discrimination and hate laws is still pending Senate approval. Last March, it was passed by the House of Commons by a 149-137 vote. The bill has been dubbed the “bathroom bill” by its vocal Conservative critics. Among the most vocal is Calgary MP Rob Anders, who posted a petition on his website saying the goal of the bill “is to give transgendered men access to women’s public washroom facilities.

“It is the duty of the House of Commons to protect and safeguard our children from any exposure and harm that will come from giving a man access to women’s public washroom facilities,” it states.

Throw in some fear of the documented practice of what’s called “astroturfing” in which organized lobby groups use letters to the editor, online comments and social media to make it appear that grassroots “real people” are aligned with their cause and it’s not all that surprising that some trans advocates questioned the veracity of the letter published in the Star’s ethics column.

Gallinger, a former United Church minister, answered the woman’s letter with sensible sensitivity telling her that transgender women have the absolute right to use the woman’s change room and that “we have come to understand that gender is much more complex than whether we wear our equipment externally or internally.”

But Gallinger and the Star came under attack after he told trans advocates he deals with issues as they are presented and said he did not verify the letter.

Certainly this raises ethical questions about whether the newsroom — or indeed readers — expect media advice columnists to verify the facts of the mainly anonymous letters they get from people seeking advice to life’s many strange-but-true quandaries. It’s a question neither I nor the newsroom had ever given much thought to so I reached out for advice from other public editors and ombudsmen.

To continue reading this column, please go the where it was originally published.

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