VICTORIA — The professor appointed to what's believed to be the world's only chair in transgender studies hopes the research will clear away the myths and improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.
University of Victoria Prof. Aaron Devor, an internationally recognized sex- and-gender expert, will work with researchers, community activists and students to advance study into a broad range of topics that affect the lives of transgender individuals.
"Transgender people are among the most disadvantaged in society today. There's a huge amount of stigma, poverty is rampant, health care is not what it should be," he said.
"In order to improve the circumstances of transgender people, we need to have solid research that will give us good data and good foundation for changing policies, for changing practices and for changing hearts and minds."
A donation of US$1 million from the Tawani Foundation, founded and led by U.S. transgender billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, will establish the chair for five years in the university's Faculty of Social Sciences.
Devor, who is also transgender, is a professor in the university's sociology department, an elected member of the elite International Academy of Sex Research and a fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
He said about one in 200 people are transgender — a higher number than many would imagine.
"We're not talking about a minuscule part of the population," he said. "Social change is very uneven. We're seeing a lot of glamorous celebrity transgender people in the media these days, but that is not the reality for most transgender people's lives."
Among the issues he is set to explore are health care, poverty, discrimination and suicide.
Devor has been an author on the last two editions of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health's standards of care, which provide guidelines to health professionals on caring for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
He said surveys in Canada and the U.S. have shown that roughly 40 per cent of transgender people have attempted suicide. The rate of attempted suicide among Canadian transgender youth who have unsupportive parents is 57 per cent, while among those with supportive parents the rate is just four per cent.
"The difference between having a supportive family environment and not — it makes a huge difference in actually saving lives of young transgender people."
He said he's working with a group that is examining how supportive families help transgender youth and hopes to put on a conference in the coming years to discuss the issue further.
The rate of poverty among transgender people is also considerably higher than the rest of the population. Ninety per cent report experiencing harassment and difficulty in the workplace and large numbers report housing challenges, said Devor.
"This is an area that needs a lot more attention and I hope to be developing some research projects in collaboration with others on this in the future."
Devor is also the founder of the Transgender Archives at the university, which were unveiled in 2012. The collection represents more than a century of research and if lined up along one shelf, it would stretch the length of a football field.
Pritzker, a retired lieutenant colonel from a wealthy U.S. family, said the University of Victoria has made itself a leader in the study of gender identity.
"My support is an investment in success. It is a major personal goal of mine that this chair in transgender studies stimulates the outstanding work of other institutions and creates a global network for the study of this topic," she said in a statement.
University president Jamie Cassels said the chair sets the university apart as a place that offers high-quality research and a home to exceptional students, faculty and staff who inspire bold action for positive impact on others' lives.
— By Laura Kane in Vancouver