Two-spirit, trans, non-binary, gender diverse people face ‘exceptional barriers to overcome’: Manitoba artist

Though I now authentically identify as non-binary, I was raised and socialized as a woman. Additionally, as a Muslim person of colour who immigrated to Canada, I felt that I’ve always had to work harder in school and my career to achieve even half of what my peers were accomplishing.

Growing up without access to resources and detached from community, I realized long ago that it would be up to me to set myself up for success.

I am not alone. There are millions of people who must push harder, and struggle to be seen, heard, and to succeed.

March is a month of contemplation for me. On March 8, we marked International Women’s Day. Today, March 31, is Transgender Day of Visibility. These days celebrate and honour marginalized individuals.

Embracing equity was this year’s theme for International Women’s Day. Notably, gender disparity also disproportionately affects two-spirit, transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse people.

When considering equity, we must acknowledge that the systems of oppression and historical patterns of mistreatment still discriminate against some groups while benefiting others.

Progress not yet enough

In education, health, government and the economy, harmful policies and practices are still entrenched. For example, in some countries, women and girls still aren’t able to study or go to school.

In health care, pronouns are often not asked and some health care providers rigidly stick to the paperwork, such as the health card or birth certificate with the sex assigned at birth.

There is still much debate on whether transgender athletes are allowed to participate in competitive sports or compete in the Olympics. 

Though progress is being made, it is not enough. 

A photographer stands to left in studio with lighting equipment around them. Their assistant stands nearby as a subject with long dark hair sits on the floor with their skateboard
‘My goal with this project was to better understand the unique barriers different populations face from their lived experience or personal perspective,’ said artist Azka Ahmed (left). (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As a non-binary individual who chose to embrace their authentic self-expression at a young age, navigating the world became a much more challenging experience. Discrimination became more prevalent in my daily life in a variety of ways. 

These ranged from subtle incidents of misgendering to more systemic forms of discrimination such as being excluded from certain spaces, practices and policies.

Many public recreational facilities such as gyms and pools still only have male or female change rooms. Most public washrooms are still segregated into male or female spaces only. That is also the case in some places of worship too. More spaces need to be labelled as gender neutral. 

It’s exhausting navigating the world when you fit in neither the male nor female category.– Azka Ahmed

It became evident that my lived experience as a woman had shielded me from the discrimination I now faced, and I was suddenly made aware of the privilege I had previously taken for granted. 

It should not have been my responsibility to try to overcome all these barriers in order to succeed. Those barriers shouldn’t have been there in the first place. 

Medical school curriculum should include training on how to care for everyone, specifically transgender individuals. Health care coverage and insurance plans should cover gender affirming care and shouldn’t require extensive inaccessible paperwork. Teachers and educators should routinely ask for pronouns when first meeting new students. We all should be asking that question as a rule. 

I shouldn’t have to go into any spaces and be forced to educate people about where I fit in on society’s narrow spectrum of gender.

It’s exhausting navigating the world when you fit in neither the male nor female category. 

More training needed in health care

Unfortunately, transgender and gender non-conforming people consistently face barriers whether at work, at school, eating at a restaurant, accessing health care, or seeking law and justice services.

For example, a trans woman may struggle accessing health care as she may fear being misgendered, deadnamed or denied medical treatment.

Increasing provider education and training on transgender patient experiences will help reduce the barriers in receiving quality care — a right for every person.

Anti-trans rhetoric is on the rise, however. Anti-trans bills are currently being introduced and approved in the United States, disproportionately affecting transgender youth and criminalizing gender-affirming care.

As a health educator working largely with youth, it is heartbreaking to hear debate on whether certain lives should be considered “deserving” of accessing things like health care.

All lives are deserving.

Youth, in general, are a population already subject to high rates of suicide and depression. And 2SLGBTQIA+ youth, in particular, have even higher rates because of the stigmas they face about their identity and how they present themselves. 

Working in community health can be empowering, but I also see the community hurting. 

Their needs are not being met. This discrimination and exclusion from society can’t be accepted. It’s important to listen to young people and hear their needs. 

Transgender and gender non-conforming people, specifically youth, have a right to access public spaces like bathrooms safely, make their own medical decisions, and to be free from discriminatory practices and laws.

There is still much work to be done. Organizations have a responsibility to recognize barriers and develop policies that promote equity and awareness. 

Portraits for change

I want to contribute to making positive change at the community level, encouraging harm reduction practices, and helping people meet their potential despite the barriers in place. I like to believe I do that in my work in community health and in my practice as an artist, filmmaker, and photographer. 

This essay and portrait project is also my contribution to increasing visibility and embracing equity. 

This project is meant to highlight the voices that are not heard often enough, and move the conversation from words into tangible action. 

I gathered participants of all ages from different backgrounds to share their perspectives on what equity means to them. 

We photographed and interviewed them inside Motto Workspace, a new, Black-owned studio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.

I prioritized submissions from the 2SLGBTQ+ community and racialized people. My goal with this project was to better understand the unique barriers different populations face from their lived experience or personal perspective.

It was an empowering experience. We created a safe community during those studio hours. We felt free to express ourselves, and spoke about equity and what it means to all of us.

I hope, in seeing these portraits and reading these words, you are inspired in your own way to support change and work toward embracing equity. 

The work is not done. But by working together to address systemic issues, and listening to the voices of those around us, we can create a fair and just society where all lives are valued and respected.

For their portrait project, Azka photographed their subjects and asked everyone two questions: 

Here are their portraits and answers. (Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.) 

Maddy Nowosad (she/her) 

Non-binary person with long, brown hair sits on hardwood floor beside their skateboard.
(Azka Ahmed)

Embracing equity means wholly supporting efforts that seek to ensure a space is accessible to all individuals. These efforts will look different depending on the space and on the systemic inequalities prohibiting access within the space.

When I think about how skateboarding can work towards a more equitable future, the first thing that comes to mind is education and community building. Organizations working to make visible the systemic inequalities prohibiting access within skateboarding are a great first step.

Once more skaters are aware of how systemic inequalities are working within the sport to exclude 2SLGBTQ+ skaters and women skaters, the hope is that they’ll be able to work towards more accessible spaces. 

In skateboarding, for example, my partner Em and I have started a recycled skateboard program and have been working on getting gently used skateboard supplies to 2SLGBTQ+, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour], and low-income folks whenever we can.

We’ve also started giving presentations about The Other Skaters Zine (that we co-created in 2020) and the 2SLGBTQ+ skateboard community to GSA (gay-straight alliances) clubs in Winnipeg. In the process of these presentations, we’re not just teaching youth about how we try to embrace equity in the skateboarding community, but we also have an opportunity to learn from 2SLGBTQ+ youth about their experiences.

Elis Wautier (they/them) 

Non-binary person stands in profile, waist up shot. They have short blond hair.
Elis Wautier (Azka Ahmed )

[Embracing equity] means acknowledging that people come from different experiences and backgrounds and thus the same rules are not applied to everyone, nor do they make sense or work for everyone.

Sweeping statements made about all women through a cisgendered lens are harmful and gender minorities feel erased. When people feel erased from society the suicide rates increase for these groups of people.

Ally Seidlitz (no pronouns given) 

Non-binary person wearing baseball cap lies on studio floor.
Ally Seidlitz (Azka Ahmed)

Embracing equity is recognizing the differences between us and the disparity in privilege those differences may create and proudly bridging the gap to make sure everyone has equal access to any opportunity with ample resources to succeed. 

I think we as a society need to listen to our women, non-binary, trans and all other marginalized genders, specifically BIPOC, and put them in roles within our society to be decision makers, politicians and CEOs.

The only people who understand the struggle of queer BIPOC folks are the people who’ve lived through similar struggles. Putting these individuals in roles where they can enact change gives a little bit of a voice to the rest of us.

Eden Spring (they/she) 

non-binary person with red curly hair stands in front of banister
(Azka Ahmed)

[Embracing equity] means getting the support we need, even if it’s not the same support as the norm of the group. 

Disability has greatly impacted my views on equity. The past few years I’ve learned a lot about disability: my own, my mom’s and how being disabled impacts the way you move through the world. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, I’ve learned how isolating it can be.

I’m an autistic girl, and growing up it was near impossible for me to find belonging within groups, no matter how hard I tried. Sadly, feeling this kind of social isolation and stigma is a very common story for autistic youth.

With my mom, she developed Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS for short), a neuro-immune illness that has her bed-bound going on three-and-a-half years now. Before she got sick she worked at a women’s centre, working with amazing people doing amazing things for the community.

They are all really hard workers, but they were spread so thin that there wasn’t much room for anything else. My mom then lost touch with most of the support system she had when her illness stopped her from working.

In order to build an equitable society, we need to develop a healthy give-and-take.– Eden Spring

It’s clear we don’t live in an equitable society when being disabled takes away the support and opportunities to connect with your community. I find that a lot of access to common support in our society is built around how productive you are and how well you’re able to fit into the social norms of a group.

Both of those criteria are greatly impacted by being disabled. If we only focus on working and how we fit in or how others around us are working and fitting in, it blinds us to opportunities we could take to make connections and bridge gaps.

In order to build an equitable society, we need to develop a healthy give-and-take. Collectively we must let go of the scarcity mindset many of us live with and develop the mindset that we will care for the people in our community to the best of our ability, and trust that the people around us will do the same. This takes the strain out of reaching out. We need wider community nets and better distribution of labour.

We can make room for this change in our lives by choosing to act with compassion whenever we can. Compassion for close relatives, strangers, and ourselves. I try to embody those acts of care as I move through the world, and I encourage others to do the same.

Britt Banks (they/them)

Non-binary person with short blond hair sits on stool in studio.
(Azka Ahmed)

[Embracing equity] means equity for all, moving beyond tolerance and inclusion to acceptance and celebration, no matter the gender presentation or sexual orientation of the individual. 

[We can work toward a more equitable future] by celebrating our differences and similarities, and providing more opportunity for education around gender diversity,