City of Vancouver votes to divest from Vancouver Rape Relief next year
Thursday, March 14, Vancouver City Council voted to stop funding Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR). Council passed an amendment that VRR’s 2019 grant be considered “termination funding,” with the clarification that no grants be awarded in the future until the organization makes changes “to become aligned with the grant criteria and City policies.” This means that after 2019, for the first time in ten years, VRR will not receive a Direct Social Services grant from the City of Vancouver to carry out their “public education” work.
Council proposed and adopted the amendment in response to an outpouring of opposition to VRR’s grant application at Wednesday’s council meeting. Half a dozen speakers pointed out that VRR’s trans exclusionary and sex worker exclusionary politics are incompatible with the City’s own mandates around trans inclusion and sex worker safety. Funding for VRR’s education campaign supports its lobby against trans-inclusive legislation and for the legal prohibition of sex work, which causes violence to trans people and sex workers.
The lone speaker who appeared on behalf of VRR was Hilla Kerner, who arrived with an all-white entourage of young cis women. Kerner’s first argument to Council was that it was unfair that councillors didn’t notify VRR that speakers had signed up to oppose their grant application. She claimed that the City Clerk had allowed anti-VRR speakers to sign up to speak after the morning’s 9:30 am deadline, while denying pro-VRR speakers that right – a claim that the City denied. It was a weak plea for special treatment from an organization accustomed to having their funding applications uncontested.
Kerner went on to make three more arguments: first, that the City’s grant funds VRR’s public education work, which is free and accessible to everyone, including transgender people; second, that many of the organizations the City funds are justifiably restricted to certain groups; and third, that VRR’s practices comply with federal and provincial law. To back this up, she pointed to a Supreme Court of BC decision from 1995 (presumably she meant the 2003 decision and got the dates mixed up) and argued that because VRR represents an “oppressed group fighting for equality,” it has the right to define who its membership is. In sum, Kerner said that it’s “slander” to say that Rape Relief’s practices are in contradiction to any law.
The question-and-answer period with Kerner spanned nearly half an hour, wherein Kerner seemed increasingly frazzled and clung to arguments that sounded more hollow with each recitation. Over and over, Kerner argued that being “born female” is a unique experience that merits VRR’s trans-exclusionary policies. When Councillors pressed her on whether or not VRR could or would shift to become trans inclusive, she argued that this was akin to asking a refugee organization to serve Canadians or an Indigenous organization to serve settlers, and that doing so would completely undermine VRR’s basis of unity.
NPA Councillor Colleen Hardwick was the only councillor who was explicitly sympathetic to Kerner’s biologically-essentialist ideology, bizarrely fixating on the idea that the fear of an unwanted pregnancy through rape is uniquely and centrally a “female experience” – an idea that erases trans men, non-binary people, and cis women who are not able to become pregnant.
During the next day’s council meeting, where Council voted on the amended motion, City staff admitted that they have been aware of VRR’s trans-exclusionary policies for a while, and had plans to discuss it with VRR, but had not received any formal complaints until last night’s meeting. Mary Clare Zak (Managing Director of Social Policy) pointed out that prior to last night’s meeting, staff were unaware that VRR is evidently firm on their position and unwilling to alter their policies. Zak explained that had staff discovered this through consultation with VRR, they likely would have offered immediate funding but recommended decreasing or diverting funds in the future. This means that the interventions of trans people, sex workers, and their allies at City Hall directly resulted in Council adopting a resolution to defund Vancouver Rape Relief after this year. While this particular grant represents only 3% of VRR’s total revenue, terminating it signals a significant shift in public perception of transphobia, whether it’s espoused by right-wing bigots or so-called “feminists.”