Skip to main content

Politics Court challenge delayed as Newfoundland drafts gender-neutral birth-certificate legislation

Activist Gemma Hickey, who identifies as non-binary, praised Newfoundland's move to allow gender-neutral birth certificates as a 'historic move.'

Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

From early childhood, Gemma Hickey rebelled against wearing dresses and never felt female.

It was a misfit sensation of not belonging that Hickey wants to spare other kids — starting with their birth certificates.

Hickey describes as a "big victory" what happened Friday in a St. John's courtroom that could go a long way to ease stigmas and increase acceptance for those who linger between genders.

Story continues below advertisement

Hickey's legal challenge of the province's Vital Statistics Act, which allows birth certificates only to have male or female sex designations, was delayed at provincial Supreme Court in St. John's while the province enshrines another option.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberal government said Thursday it will bring in legislation this fall allowing for a change of sex designation to non-binary.

Hickey hopes other provinces will follow suit — only the Northwest Territories now allows gender-neutral birth certificates.

"It's a proud day for Newfoundland and Labrador," Hickey told reporters. "We weren't the first place in Canada to do it, but second is pretty good and I feel very happy today. I feel very validated."

Hickey was also celebrating the debut of the documentary "Just be Gemma" airing Saturday on local CBC television (Newfoundland and Labrador). It will be available for viewing online as part of CBC's "Absolutely" documentary series.

Produced by Nine Island Communications, it traces Hickey's physical transition from female to non-binary — neither male nor female — beginning in 2015. The journey starts with testosterone shots before surgery to remove the breasts Hickey says never felt right.

Hickey recalls never identifying as female, and recounts being sexually assaulted for the first time at the age of five by an older boy who lived on their street. Years later, a priest who had taken special interest in Hickey, buying presents and offering visits at his home, became an abuser.

Story continues below advertisement

Hickey describes falling asleep one night on his couch, and awakening with him "on top of me."

"I just thought: 'Oh my God.' He had a cross around his neck and it would hit my face. That's what I remember, is just the cross hitting my chin."

Hickey took that trauma and, as an adult, formed the Pathways Foundation to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse. In 2015, Hickey walked 930 kilometres across Newfoundland raising funds for the group.

Hickey talks in the documentary about wanting to be called "they" rather than he or she.

"It's pretty amazing to see life from both sides, so why do I have to pick one?"

It's an awkward transition for Hickey's mother, Lynda Hayward. She still refers at times in the film to her "daughter" but accompanies Hickey to Ontario for plastic surgery and is often seen offering support and love.

Story continues below advertisement

Hickey's father, too, tells Gemma: "I love you, honey," just before Hickey has plastic surgery to remove breast tissue and create a more masculine chest. There's a swimming scene months later at an outdoor pond.

"I felt free, like I was flying," Hickey says of the feel of water on a bare chest.

Hickey's maternal grandmother inspired the documentary's title.

"I may not want to be a girl or a boy," Hickey recalls telling her.

"Just be Gemma," was the grandmother's response. "That's all any of us wants."

Under the province's proposed changes to the Vital Statistics Act, sex information will still be collected at birth, but people 12 and older will be able to choose an 'X' on their birth certificate. Children aged 12 to 15 will still require a parent to apply on their behalf, with the child's consent required.

Story continues below advertisement

The government also said it will remove the requirement for a statement from a medical professional prior to a sex-designation change for those 16 and older. Hickey said that change is particularly important because such a prerequisite "pathologizes" gender identity.

"People can decide for themselves how they choose to identify."

Those changes would short-circuit the legal fight with Hickey, who argues the Vital Statistics Act contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Hickey does not identify as solely male or female and was believed to be the first person in Canada to apply for a non-binary birth certificate.

"Our rights are never given to us, so we have to fight for them," said Hickey, who turns 41 on Oct. 1.

"It's a big victory for myself and other non-binary Canadians — particularly young people out there who are struggling with their own identity and don't feel that they have a place.

Story continues below advertisement

"We're carving out that place and we're doing that today."

Watching from the public gallery was Hickey supporter Stacey Piercey, who hopes other provinces will act soon.

"It's necessary. There's so many gender variances and identities. It's important to accept these kids and love these kids and make them part of our community."

Ontario's minister of government and consumer services, Tracy MacCharles, has said gender-neutral birth certificates could be issued in Ontario as early as next year.

In B.C., Kori Doty, a parent who identifies as transgender and prefers the pronoun they, refused to provide the sex of their child Searyl to the government when the baby was born in November.

On Aug. 31, the federal government began allowing gender-neutral passports, the latest step in Ottawa's plan to eventually allow individuals to identify their sex as 'X' — that is, unspecified — on government-issued documents.

Story continues below advertisement

The move stems from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pledge to better reflect gender diversity across the country.

At the Women in the World Summit in Toronto Sophie Grégoire Trudeau spoke about women and girls being exposed to pressure and fear has become "normal" - which is the hardest thing to change in a society.
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter