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Toronto shemales strut their stuff, part of national quest for rights
By Amy Carmichael

TORONTO (CP) A Venezuelan hairstylist strutted in a barely there bikini and modelled the bejewelled wedding dress of every little girl's dreams to win one of the world's first shemale beauty pageants.

The show was designed as a fun, flirty way to introduce shemales to mainstream society and was part of a cross-Canada movement by transgendered people to fight discrimination.

;I just want to ask people to be a little bit more respectful,'' said Lola Rodriguez, 34, as she adjusted her towering tiara after winning the pageant's $3,000 grand prize on Sunday.

;There is a lot of anger and violence out there toward anything that is different. I hope people will be more open and realize we are nothing to be afraid of.''

Shemales are men who live their lives as women and undergo various procedures such as breast, cheek and lip implants and electrolysis to look female, but keep their male genitals, explained Amanda Taylor, organizer of the pageant.

They also prefer to be referred to as ;she'' or ;her,'' despite being genetically male.

In an interview, Taylor said she doesn't want a full surgical sex change.

;I am a shemale. We are not trying to be women,'' said Taylor, smoothing back her shoulder-length dark blonde hair. ;Don't get me wrong, we wish we were, but many of us are happy to keep our genitalia. I find my male organ fascinating and it's part of me.''

Dr. James Cantor, a researcher at Toronto's gender identity clinic, said he is skeptical of people who say they want to remain in a shemale state. ;They often change their stories as they come to terms with everything,'' he said.

Doctors use the term transgendered to refer to both transsexuals who feel they were born with the wrong gender and want total sex changes, and shemales.

Cantor says it is impossible to know how many transgendered people there are in Canada because many hide their true identities.

Because shemales are relatively rare, he said, they can make big money in the sex trade and that's probably why they don't get sex changes.

Taylor said that's ridiculous and she wants people to open their minds to the reality that not everyone can be slotted neatly into male or female pigeonholes.

For the pageant, Taylor devised an interview segment to allow the six contestants to discuss issues that affect them. She also told sex jokes between the swimwear and evening gown competitions.

Taylor focused on her pet peeve: the insistence by most provinces that a person must have sex reassignment surgery before their sex can be changed on legal identification such as birth certificates.

Campaigns for transgendered rights in Hull, Que., and Vancouver are also lobbying for protection from discrimination on the job.

This week the Alberta Human Rights Commission is reviewing the case of a transsexual who was fired from her job at an Edmonton hotel after she began transforming herself from a man into a woman.

Barbara Findlay, a B.C. lawyer who works with transgendered people, said they are ;one of the most disadvantaged groups in Canadian society in terms of the discrimination they face and the lack of services that are available for them.''

In addition to intolerance from mainstream society, Taylor said shemales and transgendered people are also shunned in the gay community. She said that's because many of them work in the sex industry, often because they aren't accepted in other professions.

Donna, a Filipino living in Toronto and a Miss Shemale World contestant, said it's hard to hold down a job when transforming from one sex to another.

Donna, who uses a stage name like the other contestants, had a job in a restaurant in Toronto's gay village when she started dressing like a woman and said she was ridiculed by gay customers. ;They would tell all their friends, `hey, that waitress is a man.'''

Donna now poses for Internet pornography and works as an escort, jobs she says will earn her the thousands of dollars she needs for breast implants and the removal of her Adam's apple a lot faster than waiting tables.

Josee-Chantale Hubert of Premier Contact, a transgender group in Hull, Que., wants the government to recognize people who don't fit neatly into male or female categories, yet can't afford the $20,000 surgical sex changes or don't want to undergo the operation for health or personal reasons.

;Even if we have been under hormone therapy, all kinds of therapy, for many years and achieve femaleness in our everyday life, the government doesn't grant us permission to become female in our official documents.''

Many transgendered people want the government to relax the rules for officially changing a person's gender on identification. Shemales, like Taylor, are calling on the government to include a third gender category on legal identification cards to reflect transgendered people.

Before a person can have a sex change they must pass a series of psychiatric tests at one of Canada's two gender identity clinics, located in Vancouver and Toronto.

Cantor said that of the 45 new patients that come to his centre every year, 10 to 15 are approved for surgery. The rest are judged to be suffering from a lesser form of gender variance.

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