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Jessica's Story: The fight for trans rights on campus

by Stephanie Taylor

Dempsey awaits to hear whether the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission will dismiss her discrimination case against the company Aramark, or put it to trial
Dempsey awaits to hear whether the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission will dismiss her discrimination case against the company Aramark, or put it to trial

(K'JIPUKTUK) HALIFAX - Jessica Dempsey never wanted to be an activist — all she wanted was to be herself. 

But nearly three years after the former Dalhousie student began her transition from male to female, she says the discrimination she faced was so great that she had no other choice than to stand up for her rights and the rights of other trans students on campus. 

“I’m a fighter. I always ways,” Dempsey said during an interview, just one day shy of finding out whether the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission will rule if her discrimination case against Aramark — the company in charge of food services at Dalhousie -- will be dismissed or sent to trial. 

Dempsey, who was a student in the faculty of management at the time, filed a complaint against the company last fall, after she allegedly was harassed by two employees who refused to call her by her preferred female name and asked her whether her breasts were real. 

“If somebody asked a cyswoman if their boobs were real it’d be sexual harassment,” Dempsey said. 

But when she took her initial complaint to the school's human right's and equity office, she says she was met with inaction, rather than support. 

That’s when Dempsey decided that her story, along her with anger and pain, were going to be heard, and contacted the local media, as well as the human rights commission. 

“It’s not all about me, but somebody has to be a leader,” she said. 

Her case was discussed in June during a resolution conference between herself, the two employees accused of harassment, along with five company managers, and a human right's investigator. 

Dempsey says she refused to reach an agreement, describing the experience as awful and intimidating. 

She has since filed a second human rights complaint, this time against the Department of Labour and Advanced Education alleging the loss of her student loans was based on her learning disability and gender identity. 

Dempsey says she lost funding last fall when she failed two math classes -- which she attributed to a learning disability she developed as a result of hormone treatment. 

When she appealed the decision to the loan committee, she ways mis-gendered twice in documents, and once in person, despite having asked to be referred using female pronouns. 

Recently, Dempsey learned the human right's board has approved her complaint and will proceed with the next steps of action. 

She says all wants is to return to school to finish the two years left in her degree. 

Given everything that's happened in the past year, Dempsey says she's been placed on a medical stress leave on doctors orders. 

But she's still proud of who she is, in spite of all the setbacks and the struggles. 

“It’s not an easy path, but it’s a hell of a lot easier being myself than hiding and not being myself and living a double life,” she said. 

When Dempsey decided to come out as Jessica after years of battling with depression and suicide, she anticipated that some of the people in her life wouldn't understand. She never expected to face discrimination from an institution like Dalhousie. 

"It’s supposed to be a safe place," she said, citing its zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy and its pledged commitment to diversity. 

Dempsey believes safety is a major issue for trans students on campus,  and says one of the biggest threats comes from being "outed" by documents that mis-gender or mis-identify someone, such as class lists and student I.Ds. 

“There’s nothing worse than when I went to class and the professor couldn’t find me because I had a male name,” she recalled. “The university should be ashamed of themselves.”

Last February, the university implemented a preferred name policy to increase safety for trans and non-gender conforming students, but Dempsey says there is still much red tape that needs to be cut in order to make a name change easier. 

To raise awareness about this and other trans rights, Dempsey is planning a rally for Monday, Sept. 22. 

“I’m not going to back down anymore," she said. I’m going to stand up for my rights and the rights of other trans people." 


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