Transition Related Surgery: The Fight For Access

June 22, 2023
Photo of Amelia Smith

During Pride Month and beyond, we bring to light the inspiring stories of those 2SLGBTQ+ changemakers who have made meaningful contributions to our hospital and to our community. Today we celebrate Amelia Smith, who completed her Masters capstone project at WCH as part of the Museum Studies Course through UofT’s Faculty of Information. In 2019, Amelia had researched and designed a physical exhibit to be installed on the 6th floor of Women’s College Hospital. The exhibit was to be featured as part of WCH and the WCH Foundation’s Pride Month celebrations in June 2020 until Covid derailed her plans. We asked Amelia a few questions about her work, and also found out where you can find the exhibit today.  

1. Hi Amelia! Can you share with us why you decided to create this exhibit?

This exhibit began when Heather Gardiner, the archivist at WCH, visited my Exhibition project class to pitch projects that students could work on. This was the Fall of 2019, and the TRS department had just performed their first vaginoplasty only a few months earlier, making WCH the first new institution in Canada to offer the procedure in decades. I caught her as she was leaving to suggest the idea, celebrating the history of transition related surgeries in Ontario over the past 50 years. It seemed like a great way to shine a light on the program that was only just beginning and to delve into the long history that preceded it.

2. Who did you feel was the target audience of this exhibit and why?

The target audience was first and foremost other transgender people. I find a lot of exhibitions about transgender people are too often not for trans people. Instead, they present trans lives in a stifled way that can be better understood by cisgender audiences. I often find that this leaves little for transgender audiences to actually take away from these shows; even when they are about them, they are not for them.

So it was important for me to craft it to speak to an imagined transgender audience that could learn something about their history. If written well, it could still speak to a cisgender audience, but that did not mean that I had to tailor it entirely towards them.

3. Can you tell us the specifics about this exhibit? What did it consist of? Any highlights?

The exhibition took an activist perspective on the history of surgery in Ontario. I felt this was important because I did not want a rote repetition of “this is the surgery, this is how it used to be done, this is how it is done now.” I did not want to medicalize trans lives further, especially here in Toronto where the shadow of the Clarke Institute (nowadays part of CAMH) looms large over trans communities. That’s where the title comes from, The Fight For Access. The exhibition explored how transgender communities came together to fight for their surgeries.

To do this, I brought together materials from all over North America. Thanks to the Digital Transgender Archives, I was able to actually see the materials before requesting a lot of them. This made it a lot easier to imagine what the exhibition could look like and how it would be put together. As a result, I was able to acquire materials from the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, the Transgender Archives in Victoria, and loads from the ArQuives.

The part I frequently point to is the sections that deal with the delisting of surgery. In 1998, the Harris government unilaterally delisted surgery from OHIP coverage. Not even the Clarke, the only clinic that trans people could go to in the province to get that provincial funding, was aware that that was happening until it was reported in a Sunday edition of the Toronto Sun. This would shape transgender politics for the next decade, with activists trying in various ways to get surgery relisted. At the time, it was unheard of for something that was delisted to be relisted. It was an uphill battle to get it back. But in 2008, the McGuinty government did relist it, making surgery covered by provincial health care once again.

I feel this is an important message right now, when the whole world is against us. Things may seem bad, things are difficult. But never let that stop the fight. It is only by fighting for ourselves, fighting for our rights, our lives, that we can make a change. If we give up now and just accept the way things are, it is never going to get better. The rights we have today are owed to those that came before and fought like hell. Now it is our turn, so that those that come after us might not have to deal with any of these difficulties.

4. What was you biggest challenge in creating this exhibit? Why?

I feel like the easy answer is to say the pandemic. The exhibition was initially supposed to be physically in the hospital, but because of COVID, I had to shift entirely to digital. I do consider this to be a bit of a blessing though, as it allowed me to start working on my website and develop something of a brand for myself.

5. How was WCH/WCHF important in making this exhibit come to life?

The exhibit probably would not exist had it not been for WCH. Through Women’s, I was able to connect with people like Emery Potter and Yonah Krakowsky in the TRS department. By working with everyone that I did, I felt incredibly supported, to the point that even when priorities had shifted as a result of COVID, I was still able to stay in touch and share the results of the work. None of that could have been possible without all the helpful folks I worked with on this project.

6. Where can people access this exhibit now?

The exhibit is available on my website, It can be found under the Exhibitions tab at the top of the page.

7. What does Pride mean to you?

Pride is inherently political. Pride began with a riot at Stonewall. In Canada, it began in response to incredibly militaristic police raids on gay bathhouses in 1981, resulting in the largest mass arrest in Toronto’s history. Any attempt to water that down does a disservice to all of those queer people who are still having to fight just to be heard.

8. What is your dream for Pride in healthcare? What does your ideal future hold?

My ideal future is one where access to necessary health care is not gatekept. Where, to quote the Third World Gay Revolution all the way back in 1971, “the right to free physiological change and modification of sex [is available] on demand.” I want to see informed consent become the baseline model for access to hormones, and for fewer requirements in order to change identifying documents. Not all trans people transition, and so things like a doctor’s note should not be needed in order to change one’s birth certificate.

9. Anything else you would like to share?

Trans rights are under attack all over the world right now. It may be easy to say that it is only happening elsewhere and it isn’t in Canada, but that is very much not true. It is here. And we must act before we see our rights rolled back like in Florida or in the UK. We must not let that happen here.

You can see Amelia’s exhibit, The Fight For Access, HERE.