Canada

This transgender man moved to Canada to escape transphobia. He found it here, too

Advocates say anti-transgender movements are picking up steam around the world, including in Canada. It’s making some reconsider this country’s reputation as a refuge for the trans community.

Canada has long been seen as a safe haven. Now, that’s changing

He moved to Canada to escape transphobia. He says it’s here, too

3 months ago
Duration 2:19
Aden Polydoros moved to Canada from the U.S. in April 2023 after a transphobic incident in his home state of Arizona. After a few months of living in Vancouver, Polydoros says he feels he was naive to expect he wouldn’t encounter transphobia here.

Aden Polydoros spent more than a decade living in Arizona as a transgender man until, he says, a transphobic experience in the summer of 2022 prompted him to move to Canada. 

He moved to Vancouver this April. He says he's lucky. As an author, it was easy to take his work with him. He also started studying screenwriting as he hopes to write for movies some day.

Polydoros, 27, says he feels safer in Canada. But nationwide protests in September over LGBTQ-inclusive school policies disturbed him. 

Many demonstrations were held under the same name, "1 Million March 4 Kids." Organizers say children should not be taught about LGBTQ identities in school, which they say amounts to the "indoctrination and sexualization" of children. 

The transgender community and its allies reject this accusation, arguing that education helps LGBTQ children describe and understand themselves, and know they are not alone. 

Protesters and counter-protesters face off at a demonstration.
Protesters and counter-protesters face off in downtown Charlottetown on Sept. 20, amid nationwide rallies against LGBTQ-inclusive education policies. (Alex MacIsaac/CBC)

They see allegations of "indoctrination" as thinly veiled transphobia, in part because they echo homophobic arguments used in past decades against lesbians and gay men. 

"I thought I wasn't going to encounter [transphobia] here," Polydoros said. "I guess I was a bit naive."

WATCH | What it's like for transgender youth:

A candid conversation about transgender rights

4 months ago
Duration 4:29
A mother and daughter share their thoughts about the protests around sex education and teaching LGBTQ rights in schools, as well as what it's like to be a transgender youth today.

He's not the only one to have second thoughts. Activist Erin Reed, who tracks anti-transgender legislation in the U.S., says hundreds of state-level bills targeting trans people have forced some people to consider moving to friendlier states. And, now, with restrictive national legislation being tabled on topics like gender-affirming care, transgender people in the military and teaching about gender identity in schools, Reed says more Americans may look for refuge abroad.

Canada has long been seen, by many on the American left, as more progressive, for reasons including its earlier legalization of gay marriage. "Moving to Canada" was a common joke for some — a supposedly serious but largely unfulfilled vow for others — during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"Until this point, the anti-trans panic had seemed like it had not reached Canada," Reed said. "Now that, of course, has changed."

Cause for concern

Helen Kennedy, the executive director of the LGBTQ-advocacy group Egale Canada, says there are signs anti-trans movements are picking up steam in Canada and around the world.

"I haven't seen it this bad actually in all the time that I've been doing this work," Kennedy said. "What we're seeing in the U.S. is kind of permeating across the border and into Canada."

Two protesters hold up a sign that says 'God says: two genders'
Protesters opposed to LGBT-inclusive education rally in Toronto on Sept. 20. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg,"  she said. "We're not there yet in terms of … the type of legislation that they're looking at in the U.S., but we're getting there."

The governments of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, for example, have both introduced policies requiring teachers to inform parents if their child changes the pronoun they use at school. Alberta is considering the same. Advocates say these policies could out trans students to their parents, putting them at risk if their parents are not accepting.

There have been protests at libraries over drag storytime events, and socially conservative groups have continued to protest LGBTQ-inclusive school policies.

While the protests are largely focused on education — because of the alleged peril to children — advocates say they contribute to a broader feeling that transphobia in Canada is becoming more prominent.

At the Conservative Party convention in September, delegates voted for a policy that would restrict medical gender-affirming care for minors. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has yet to say whether he supports the resolution.

More recently, while speaking to supporters, Poilievre reportedly accused Justin Trudeau of trying to impose "radical gender ideology on our kids and on our schools."

Protesters hold signs saying ‘Leave Our Kids Alone’ and ‘Arrest All Groomers.’
Protesters in Toronto hold signs saying ‘Leave our kids alone’ and ‘Arrest all groomers,' on Sept. 20. 'Grooming' is a term connected with the sexual abuse of children. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"When people are using this terminology, what they're really saying is that women and 2SLGBTI people have made too many gains," Kennedy said. 

Kennedy says it's difficult to tell whether Poilievre believes this is a problem or whether he's just playing to his base. 

CBC News reached out to Poilievre for comment but did not receive a response.

Kennedy says such comments may make some transgender people or their families reconsider Canada as a safe option.

"When you look at the potential next prime minister of this country and this is the rhetoric that you're hearing, that's a sober second thought before you make that decision to move," she said.

'You don't want to come to Canada'

Kimberly Shappley's family fled Texas for Connecticut in 2022, after the state governor signed an executive order that would prosecute parents of trans children for abuse if they affirmed the child's gender.

Shappley's daughter was well-known in the state, having spoken frequently at the legislature in favour of trans rights.

A young child colours a picture with crayons, seated next to an older woman.
Kimberly Shappley and her daughter, then five years old, in their former home in Pearland, Texas, in 2016. (John L. Mone/The Associated Press)

Shappley says she now fears what next year's U.S. presidential election will mean for her daughter.

"If we get a presidential Republican, if we get a conservative, we have between November election till January when they take office to get out of the U.S.," she said.

Shappley, who works as a nurse, had been considering moving her family to Canada. She'd been told her job was in high demand. Then, she says, some Canadians reached out to her.

"They're like, 'You don't want to come to Canada because we're kind of in the same boat,'" she said. "Because if we end up with Conservative leadership, you're f–ked here too."

Shappley says she's not sure what her next move will be. She's considered Ireland and New Zealand, but it's an expensive move to make for a single mother — and advocates say there are no guarantees transgender rights will continue to be protected.

"The same people that are advocating for the loss of care in the United States … are doing the same thing in countries across Europe," said Reed. "They're doing the same thing in New Zealand and Australia, and indeed they're doing the same thing in Canada."

Polydoros, who's now lived in Canada for several months, says he can't afford to uproot his whole life again. He's not sure there'd be a point.

"You can't keep running from bigotry. It's going to be everywhere." he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kit Kolbegger

Associate producer

Kit Kolbegger is a journalist and associate producer with CBC News, based in Toronto. They have previously worked on the Tainted Water investigation with the Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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