Love is non-binary. Kindness is not gender-neutral. Compassion is not defined by sex, class, or race. This obvious assessment of humanity that is not relegated to a debate on biology is something that renowned local advocate Gemma Hickey knows more than most.
You’ve heard the name Gemma Hickey in The Newfoundland Herald more than once. Indeed, Hickey’s contribution on a social scale in Newfoundland and Labrador are beyond summarizing in a single well-worded article. Hickey has always bore the brunt of being the first one through the glass ceiling and continues to do so again in 2017.
Hickey, who identifies as non-binary trans-masculine, is heading to the courts in an effort to add a non-binary option to birth certificates in Newfoundland and Labrador.
But to reach present day it is paramount to examine the sum of the journey that has brought Hickey to this point, one that began in childhood, for a kid who was a stranger in their own skin.
“Ever since I was little I was struggling with my gender and not knowing what to call it until I got into my adolescence,” Hickey explains, opening up in a sitdown with The Newfoundland Herald.
“I was having these attractions to other girls, and there was no language for me to describe myself back then except gay. I had a really hard time trying to accept being gay, because I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family and I thought I like girls so I must be gay and it’s the only word I can think of and I don’t want to be that. The Church says it’s wrong and society says it’s wrong and I must be evil or sick. I went to see a conversion therapist to try to change and that didn’t work. Eventually I just came out as a lesbian and I thought that’s who I am. Then I moved on in my life and through my struggles and worked all those things out, particularly walking across the island.”
Hickey’s 900 kilometre trek across Newfoundland in the summer of 2015, while designed to raise awareness and improve services for victims of abuse at religious institutions, proved to be a life-changing and cathartic endeavour on an even more profound and personal scale. “I literally walked from one side of the island to the other side of myself, that’s how I put it,” Hickey recalls. “I feel I had to spend 10 months training where I lost a lot of weight and I had to pay attention to my body in a way that I hadn’t before. I didn’t drink, I didn’t eat anything that was bad for me or go out, I just trained. I had to spend a lot of time with myself and do hard work on myself both inside and out. It gave me the time to really reevaluate my life and where I was at with it all.
‘Stubborn That Way’
“When I was walking on the highway I had all these things come up I hadn’t anticipated. Endurance-wise I was fine. I had plantar fasciitis in my right foot and Achilles tendinitis in my left foot and my doctor said don’t walk Newfoundland, so when someone says don’t I have to do it. Stubborn that way. I had to tape up my feet with ducktape and my feet were blistered so much when I was heading to that area of Corner Brook that I had no skin on my feet. The ducktape was wrapped up in my feet and I had an allergic reaction to the glue in the tape. My legs swelled and I had major chafing in between my legs. I remember being in the camper one night with my uncle after my 30k was done. My legs were burning and it was a tiny bathroom and I couldn’t spread out in the tiny bathtub but he filled it up halfway with ice water for me and I immersed myself in it. The cool from the ice really soothed the burn between my legs.
“I remember being in the bathtub in the fetal position and I was shaking, not because I was cold, but because I had to look at my body and really face myself in a way that I hadn’t before and really accept that I had some things going on. I had to pay attention to the fact that I was hurt between my legs, that I was sexually abused. The chafing really brought me back into my body again. It’s like my body had memory. I was there shaking and crying and it was very cathartic and it was at that point I thought, I’m trans and I’m hurt.
‘I’m A Survivor’
“I’d been surviving on this narrative that I’m a survivor, and I am, but I had forgotten the little child inside of me who has been hurting. I left that little person back there a long ways and it was as if it had surfaced and I couldn’t hide from anything anymore. It was at that moment I had to really come out to myself and it was what I needed.”
Here we are some two years later and Hickey is the first person in Canada to apply for a gender-neutral birth certificate. It’s a perfectly reasonable request and one Hickey sees as perfectly within the realm of possibility, and probability, given the current landscape.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s an I.T. issue,” Hickey says. “There’s already infrastructure in place for the government to make the change. I applied on April 12 of this year for a gender-neutral birth certificate and waited for six weeks in order to get a response. I paid my fee, filled out my application. There was no section for non-binary on the application, only male or female, so I created my own category and ticked that off.”
With no response in the designated six week waiting period, Hickey sought clarification, copying the Minister of Service NL and Justice Minister on the message in an effort to get the ball rolling. With no satisfying resolution in sight, a court date has been filed for November of this year and one that lands Hickey in the national history books.
“They were not able to provide (an answer) and were saying they had to review what was happening federally and were not in a place to do it provincially,” Hickey explains. “I basically had to wait and in the meantime I surrendered my birth certificate – I had no birth certificate. Time went on and I inquired again and they still couldn’t give me an answer. I filed an application with my lawyer in the summer and we got a court date for November 22nd.
‘Grounded In Myself’
“I was the first person in Canada to apply for a gender-neutral birth certificate,” Hickey adds. “Since that time a number of people have reached out from all over the world. I’ve gotten thousands of messages of support. Other people have also applied across the country and it’s just been amazing. Of course the volume of death threats and threats of sexual violence and physical violence have increased, especially on the international level because I put myself out there in an even bigger way than before. Back when I was pushing for same sex marriage, when I was lobbying for same sex couples about 20 or so years ago, social media wasn’t a thing. There was no social media, no Facebook. That makes you more accessible to people who want to hurt you.”
Of course Hickey has acquired something of a thick skin when it comes to absorbing the barbs and public backlash of bigots and haters. Their work towards gender equality, same sex marriage and spotlighting of sexual abuse in the Church have all seen Hickey spotlighted on a national stage and we all know that with a large platform comes more prejudice and poison vitriol of hate and oppression.
“You’re vulnerable when you put yourself out there,” Hickey says. “Not everyone would know of the process to apply and not everyone wants to be the public face of something like this … I’m out there in the public, I’m an activist, a people-person and pretty well grounded in myself and know who I am. Not everyone has that kind of confidence to be able to have those type of conversations, because they can be exhausting even for me.”
The time appears to be right for a shift in attitudes and mindsets when it comes to the transsexual community. The passing of Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, was a massive step towards the bridging of long non-existent gender sensitivities. And truly, it’s the just, right and entirely humane practice. Whether straight, gay, non-binary or whatever the preferred practice or preference, we all think, feel and love just the same.
“Like I always say changing laws is really the first step, changing hearts and minds takes a lot longer,” Hickey eloquently shares in closing. “It comes with conversation, it comes with more resources being made available and it comes with people speaking out and being open about their experiences. It also comes with seeing one another as the same.
“When it all comes down to it we love, we cry, we hurt, we get angry, have feelings, we experience our feelings in the same way and that’s a part of the human condition. We’re different but yet the same. I’ve seen a lot of change and have been part of a lot of change. I’ve had quite a life so far.”
A television film on Hickey’s journey, ‘Just Be Gemma,’ directed and produced by Nine Island Productions, is slated to air Saturday September 23 at 9:00 p.m. on CBC Television.