It may not be the most headline-grabbing victory – the right of transsexuals to chose the gender of the police officer strip-searching them – but any legal acknowledgement of trans people lays one more stone in the foundation towards full recognition.


On May 16, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario issued a positive decision concerning the treatment of transsexual persons by police.


The complaint was launched by a pre-operative transsexual woman who was strip-searched by Peel Police on several separate occasions in 1999 and 2001. She told the Human Rights Commission her repeated requests to have female officers conduct these searches were denied. Peel Police, as per their policy at the time, required involving a male officer in the search because the trans woman in question hadn’t yet had sex reassignment surgery.


After the Commission carried out an investigation and attempted to resolve the complaint, the matter was referred to the Tribunal for a decision.


The Tribunal found Peel Police’s policy to be discriminatory and ordered a new one. Now, when police want to strip-search a detained transsexual person, three options must be given: the use of male officers only; the use of female officers only; or a split search involving both (where the body’s top half is searched by an officer of a different gender).


In addition, the Tribunal provided direction on how searches of trans people should be conducted, including: requiring the officer-in-charge be informed and authorize the strip search; and advice on resolving situations where an officer has serious reason to doubt a detained person’s self-identification as trans.


The Tribunal order also states officers cannot decline to perform strip searches of a transsexual person except where they can demonstrate their own human rights would be infringed.


One of the most significant parts of the Tribunal order, in terms of increasing awareness of transsexuals, is that Peel Police have to produce a training video on transsexuality for all of its members. The Commission will have to approve the video, which must be produced with input from experts and from the transsexual community.


No wonder Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, calls this decision “precedent-setting” in a news release. She also suggests it “recognizes that transsexual individuals are full and equal members of society who must be accorded respect, dignity and freedom from discrimination.”


Hall also told the Globe and Mail the process leading to the decision “really taught a lot of people about transsexual persons”, resulting in “greater respect and dignity and greater freedom from discrimination.”


Police strip searches are not elegant processes. The road to full recognition is not always marked by beautiful road signs. But each and every recognition is a sure sign that progress is being achieved.


Homosexuality had to first be decriminalized almost four decades ago and then, removed from the manual of psychiatric disorders.


Today, same-sex partners can openly love and even be legally married. Tomorrow, thanks to decisions such as the one above on police strip searches, trans people will have full recognition.