“Ottawa” Transgender Activist Gapka has ‘Saved the Lives of Countless People’
In her teenage years, Susan Gapka led a life of despair, fleeing what she calls an emotionally abusive home as she struggled, confused to her core about her identity.
On this week’s Day of Pink, 30 years later, she came to Ottawa to receive the Youth Model of the Year Award, hailed as a “national hero” for her work as a mentor for transgender people as well as for her efforts and successes in changing policies not inclusive of transgenders.
“While I may not have a family or a special person in my life, I get to be a role model and a support for a whole generation of young trans people and trans families, and that is a pretty awesome place to be,” she said this week.
“It is so special to be awarded this prize after everything I and we, transgender people, have gone through.”
Jeremy Dias, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, described Gapka as a “national hero” and role model, one of the first ones in the Canadian transgender community.
“She saved the lives of countless people,” he said of Gapka’s work as a mentor.
Gapka’s father, a Second World War and Korean War veteran, spent most of his life in the military, following his own father’s path. While growing up, Gapka constantly moved from one country to another, leaving her friends behind. When her father retired, they moved to a Canadian Forces base in Trenton, two hours from Toronto.
“My father was incredibly rude and mean, and I was very unhappy. My household was a site of trouble, a site of trauma, and I was trying to get away from that, not really understanding all of it at the time,” says Gapka, who moved to Toronto on her own shortly after the move to Trenton.
But the pressures continued to build. Within a few years, the transgender activist lost her mother, killed in a car accident, her father, dead of a heart attack, and her sister.
Without wanting to get into the details of her life living on the streets, she says she still feels she has work to do to overcome the burdens of the past.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said.
When she finally found housing, she got her life back on track and later attended college and university, where she met people who provided her with a support she never had before.
“It was a sharp contrast from what it was like growing up, and it gave me the chance to look into my deeper issues, which had been troubling me for years,” she says of the development.
“I realized that it wasn’t a passing phase.”
She began her transition in September 1999 and started advocating for transgender people not long afterward. She said her experiences motivated her to get involved with other people who have similar struggles in life. Since then, she has received numerous awards, from the City of Toronto’s Pride Award to the Deborah Hobson Award for Student Leadership during her years at York University. She has also founded the Trans Lobby Group, a group advocating for the public funding of Sex Reassignment Surgery.
“It took me a long time to realize that I was not a bad person; I was a good person in a bad place,” she says. “It was so hard for me, and I think no other people should have it this hard.”
Next month, she will be celebrating 20 years in recovery. When speaking of recovery, Gapka mentions recovery in all its forms, from mental health recovery to substance use recovery.
“You leave your house, you get disowned by loved ones and family members, police chase you for sleeping on the street corners, businesses tell you to get away, people shun you, you end up in a correction institution or a mental health facility, and then people scream at you for being depressed,” she says. “Well, no wonder I’m depressed; wouldn’t you be?”
Gapka calls herself a “systems survivor,” a term she coined after working as an adviser for the Canadian Mental Health Commission of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
As a campaigner for social justice, housing, homelessness, mental health, harm reduction and transgender people, she says, “We are not only one particular system or one particular identity, we aren’t homogeneous. But all systems push people out instead of bringing people in, and I’m happy to be a survivor and keep surviving.”
She works as an adviser to The 519, a City of Toronto agency that specializes in a host of LGBTQ issues and on projects toward implementing Bill C-16, which, if enacted, will add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act of the Criminal Code.
“You don’t have to be transsexual to be struggling in society. The system is really harsh on almost everyone.”