Rupert Raj Oral History (2016)
Oral History with Rupert Raj, one of 7 activists involved in fighting Ontario's delisting of gender confirming surgeries from the province's public health plan in 1998. Conducted in Spring/Summer 2016 as part of the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory (Elspeth Brown, PI)
Rupert Raj has been a transgender activist for 47 years, a path that started when he first began transitioning in 1971. He refers to his transition as being extremely long, lasting a total of 41 years. At the time of the delisting he was starting his Master’s in counselling and psychology and working as a career counsellor at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. He recalls knowing Susan Gapka for a long time, being involved together in the Trans Lobby Group (previously Health Advocacy Action Group).
Rupert talks about his long history engaging with politicians towards furthering transgender liberation. He mentions lobbying George Smitherman in the early 2000s, as well as Cheri DiNovo a few years later. He recalls the first-ever forum for transgender issues at the national level organized by Egale Canada in 2005 and attracting individuals such as Kyle Scanlon, Tami Starlight, Jessica Friedman, Susan Gapka, Cynthia Peterson, George Smitherman, and Barbara Hall, who at the time served as the head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
He speaks of a support group for trans men ran by him that existed from 1982 to 1988. After this period, he recalls there not being a support group for trans men in Canada until 1999, except for one that existed in Vancouver for a brief period. That year, he resumed holding such groups after being asked to do so by Mirha Soleil-Ross as it had been over a decade since trans men had this kind of structured space to come together and socialize.
According to Rupert, trans circles before the 1990s were mostly represented by transgender women, as he acknowledged that many trans men held transmisogynistic ideas that took some time to reconcile.
Rupert mentions the different kinds of procedures involved within trans healthcare, such as electrolysis, bottom surgery, implants, and others. He compares the coverage of such procedures within different provinces in Canada as well as with other countries. He talks of the specifics of bottom surgery for transgender men and the different challenges that can arise from it.
At the end of the 1970s Rupert remembers Alberta covering phalloplasty surgeries for trans men, so he moved there with his partner at the time who was also a trans man. This was part of a program ran out of the University of Calgary, which required patients to endure a 6-12 month process for approval that involved psychiatrist visits and paying a $1000 fee. This program was, according to him, the only site where these surgeries were performed in all of North America at the time. Nonetheless, he wasn’t able to go ahead with it as he didn’t have the necessary body mass for a successful skin graft.
Speaking of the medicalization of trans issues, Rupert talks of the power vested in boards of medicals specialists who determined the validity of patients’ gender identities and their right to be able to pursue their transitions. He mentions how at the time there was a common misconception that trans people wouldn’t be gay, and as such many trans people had to pass as straight in order to not be denied medical services or the ability to transition.
Rupert mentions the Trans Health Project, a study on the health and wellness needs of the transgender community undertaken by the Trans Lobby Group. This group, composed in part by Rupert and Susan Gapka, emerged from the RHN as they believed the latter to be too focused on theoretical issues.
On the subject of the prison and justice system, Rupert highlights the need for a trans movement that expands beyond just human rights, as the needs of the transgender inmate population are very different than those commonly addressed by the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement.
Interviewee: Rupert Raj