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10-year-old transgender girl wages battle to change identification rules

A 10-year-old Comox girl has started a campaign to stop what she sees as bullying every time she crosses the border to visit her grandmother. The problem, Harriette Cunningham says, is that her passport says she’s a boy.
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Harriette Cunningham, 10, and her grandmother, Cathie Dickens, stuff envelopes with letters to politicians asking for a change to gender identification on birth certificates and passports.

A 10-year-old Comox girl has started a campaign to stop what she sees as bullying every time she crosses the border to visit her grandmother.

The problem, Harriette Cunningham says, is that her passport says she’s a boy.

Facing border officials as a transgender girl — when her identity and outward appearance don’t match the sex designation on her passport — gives her undue anxiety, she said.

“It makes me really stressed. It makes me really sad for about an hour before and after. I want to explain myself,” she said, “but I think it’s my right not to have to.”

The Grade 5 student and her grandmother, Cathie Dickens, who lives in Comox and spends part of each year in Palm Springs, are mailing letters to MLAs and MPs, asking for changes to official identification policy they say discriminates against transgender people. They also have a meeting scheduled with their MLA, Don McRae, who is also minister of social development.

In B.C., a person must have sex reassignment surgery before he or she can change the sex designation on a B.C. Birth Record, which typically serves as a basis for other forms of identification, such as passports.

But Harriette says surgery is a choice separate from gender identity.

“I don’t really think it’s fair to make me wait until I have surgery, when this is truly who I am,” she said.

If she lived in Ontario, the law would be on her side. In April 2012, that province’s Human Rights Tribunal ruled the surgery requirement to be “substantively discriminatory.”

“It perpetuates stereotypes about transgendered persons and their need to have surgery in order to live in accordance with their gender identity, among other things,” adjudicator Sheri Price wrote in her decision.

That ruling provided the basis for a policy change that, in October 2012, made Ontario the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow trans people to change their sex designation on a birth certificate without sex reassignment surgery. Now, a trans person in Ontario can apply for a new birth certificate with only a letter from a physician or psychologist.

Similar precedents have been set in Argentina, Germany and New Zealand.

For Harriette, official identification is more than just a piece of paper.

“If it’s not important, why do we have to have it to cross the border?” she said.

“That little thing, for me, is huge.”

asmart@timescolonist.com