YWCA Regina is doubling down on its support of the transgender woman it chose to give the keynote speech at the 2023 Nutrien Women of Distinction Awards on May 6.
This comes after the speaker, Fae Johnstone, received significant backlash, transphobic remarks and threats after her attendance at the event was announced on April 21.
The announcement even resulted in calls from far right media to fire Johnstone, who is a high-profile trans activist and a YWCA Canada board member.
But Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen, CEO of YWCA Regina, said the organization supports Johnstone wholeheartedly.
"She's an incredible community leader in our country [and] has done a huge amount of work with the federal government on gender and sexually diverse policy and framework," Coomber-Bendsten said.
"YWCA Regina chose Fae as our keynote speaker because I think that given the current climate that we're under, it was so important to have the perspective of trans women be given and be shared with our community and Regina."
Trans women and the feminist movement
Johnstone said she wasn't surprised by the attacks she received, but is still saddened.
"The far right will zero in on us. They'll talk about how we're a threat to women and children. But feminist organizations all across Canada, every major feminist organization in this country, recognizes that there is no gender equity without trans women," Johnstone said.
Coomber-Bendsten said the transphobic reaction to Johnstone giving the keynote speech originally came from outside Regina, but was quickly picked up inside the community through social media, phone calls, emails and even people delivering handwritten letters to the YWCA.
"In the right wing, ultra-conservative news forums the narrative, questions and debate is really around why a trans woman is speaking on behalf of women," said Coomber-Bendtsen.
She said many far right organizations believe trans women are detrimental to the feminist movement. But the YWCA and Johnstone disagree.
"Trans women experience significant gender inequity. We are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to experience hate, harassment and violence in our lives," Johnstone said.
"So a feminist movement that is truly imagining a better world for everybody, one in which we have eradicated gender norms … it has to include transgender, diverse people because we often bear the brunt or significant volume of the hate."
YWCA Regina serves two-spirit peoples, trans women, gender diverse and sexually diverse women in its shelters, programs, outreach and harm reduction work. Coomber-Bendsten said the staff is also diverse and includes transgender women.
"We feel a big responsibility to make sure that we are answering that call to action to create an inclusive space in a more safe space. We've done a lot of work but, you know, acknowledging that we still have lots of work to do," said Coomber-Bendtsen.
"The truth is that we won't move forward in the feminist movement, we won't ever reach gender equity, unless we centre and we focus on the needs of the most marginalized people within that group."
The far right will zero in on us. They'll talk about how we're a threat to women and children. But feminist organizations all across Canada, every major feminist organization in this country, recognizes that there is no gender equity without trans women. - Fae Johnstone, transgender activist
Johnstone said there is no way to advance feminism without recognizing that there is not just one definition of a woman and that women won't always share the same experiences.
"I don't have everything in common with women who aren't trans, just like I, as a white woman, have a different experience of womanhood than a Black or Indigenous woman might. It's not about a universal understanding of womanhood, it's about dismantling the structures of violence and inequity that harm all of us," said Johnstone.
Need for empathy
While Johnstone is excited to give the keynote speech at the awards, she said she's tired of the transphobic hate she receives. She said she has been targeted seven times in seven months by far right groups. Johnstone has received death threats and been encouraged to end her life.
"Trans people aren't asking for much. We're asking for human rights, dignity and equality," said Johnstone.
Coomber-Bendtsen said many people believe that when people focus on including trans women and other marginalized communities, it takes away from their own needs.
"That couldn't be further from the truth," she said.
Coomber-Bendsten said that a lack of knowledge or understanding in the country does lead to a lack of empathy.
"It is that collective move forward with empathy and knowledge that is really going to bring change in our community."
While there was vitriol and online attacks following the keynote announcement, YWCA Regina said it also received calls from people that wanted tickets to the event so they could understand more about trans women.
The 2023 Nutrien Women of Distinction Award will be held on May 6 at the GT Lounge. For the first time, this year's event sold out within two days.
The YWCA said since receiving transphobic backlash, sponsors of the awards event have voiced their continued support.