Susan Gapka Oral History, Part 1 (2016)
Susan Gapka was born in the 1950s. She is of Ukrainian, Polish, and French Canadian background. Susan grew up in many cities, amongst them Trenton, Ontario, a very conservative environment which was restrictive of gender expression. She moved to Toronto at age 17. At this time, she was inspired by the stories of Christine Jorgensen and Dianna Boileau, trans women attaining a great deal of press coverage in the mid-twentieth century. She recalls transgender issues being heavily stigmatized in the 1970s and 1980s.
Susan had a series of personal struggles until 1997. At this time she realized her gender feelings were still present and decided to take steps to act on these feelings. She came out in 1998 right around the time of delisting. Within 8 months she was living full time in her identity and taking legal and medical steps towards her transition. She studied at George Brown in the Community Worker program. She did a placement with the Toronto Social Planning Council and worked with a housing project, and then worked in Olivia Chow’s office at City Hall as an intern until April 2000. She mentions benefitting from this political environment as she transitioned during this time and found support in her network. She recalls meeting George Smitherman around this time and outlining the series of needs trans Ontarians experienced at the time. This political agency and access to political and activist networks led her to form the Trans Lobby Group in September 2001.
The group started meeting up, with their goal being access to SRS and proper healthcare. They met with Gerard Kennedy and George Smitherman to outline their needs. Describes anger and disappointment in the trans community as sexual orientation was being added under the protections of the Canadian Human Rights Code, but not gender identity. Worked with Egale Canada aiming to push the agenda of trans Ontarians. Around 2003 she got involved with the push for same-sex marriage, also collaborating with Egale despite acknowledging they weren’t very trans-inclusive at the time given that their focus was mostly on marriage. Mentioned also working with Martine Stonehouse and Rupert Raj to help draft legislation to add protections for transgender people under the law. During this time she also tried to organize and plan protests for trans rights but these wouldn’t be very popular and therefore would have low attendance. She recalls protesting at City Hall in the early 2000s. Susan is also critical of the ways that LGB organizations have excluded transgender populations, considering the latter almost “peripheral”, and helping to perpetuate the marginalization of this community. She is nonetheless thankful of having been able to use these networks and skills acquired through these circles to the push for the rights of transgender Ontarians.
Eventually the Trans Health Lobby group started meeting under the Rainbow Health Network, an effort stemming from CLGRO (now Queer Ontario). The group, originally titled Health Advocacy Action Group, was comprised of others such as Martine Stonehouse, Rupert Raj, Shadmith Manzo, Joanne Neverman, and Michelle Hogan. For Susan, at this time there wasn’t much of a cohesive trans community but rather a collection of individuals (like Ki Namaste) raising awareness on an individual level.
She recalls events on May 16th, 2008 when funding for gender confirmation surgery was reinstated. There was an announcement made by George Smitherman (Ministry of Health) that day, holding a reception at Queen’s Park. She recalls receiving unwanted questions and comments from the press during this time, reflecting the lack of tact in dealing with transgender issues then. As such, she highlights the importance of respecting the privacy of transgender people who have had to make their life public in order to fight for their rights.
Susan hails the work of Mirha Soleil Ross and Boyd Kodak to diversify the narratives and stories of transgender people in the media in Ontario. She is critical of how much the media has focused on the medicalization of transgender issues, showcasing a great deal of curiosity around surgeries and procedures that often was very invasive and inappropriate. She argues for the expanding and diversifying of trans narratives not only so other can see themselves represented but also to not contribute towards the dehumanization of trans people.
She speaks of a time in 2007 when Rainbow Health Ontario was formed with a number of partnerships from many community groups. For her, the creation of RHO was part of a series of political actions that culminated with the reinstating of coverage for gender confirmation surgery in 2008. At this time, medical experts were still considered gatekeepers for gender transitions, but thanks to the work of activists like Susan this was changed to a multiple-provider model where doctors didn’t have the only authority on deciding the fate of transgender people. Susan is critical of how the fate of transgender people and their transitions often depend on cisgender individuals who are not familiar with the specifics of their narratives and experiences. She also emphasizes the need to encompass the fight of non-binary individuals under the transgender umbrella so as to help undo harmful gendered power structures.
She recalls being approached by the Ontario Health Association, who asked her to collaborate and take up their project on Access to Trans Health around 2003. Both Rupert and her applied and were eventually chosen to lead the project. Up until this time she only knew of two previous research studies in Canada, a piece by Devon McFarlane on trans sex workers in Vancouver just before 2000, as well as Vivian Namaste’s ‘Access Denied’. The Trans Health Project initiated by Susan and Rupert eventually led to the Trans PULSE Project, led by Greta Bauer, as she argues that the recommendations she enacted with Rupert were foundational for the latter project.
Interviewee: Susan Gapka