Quebec City lawyer Micheline Montreuil made history in the first case she pleaded as a woman.
It began in 1997 when Montreuil, an out-of-the-closet transgender who had practised law for 25 years as Pierre Montreuil, launched the first of three highly publicized court challenges against the refusal by Quebec’s registrar of civil status to allow her to legally change her name to Micheline.
“I had no choice,” she recalls in her home office in a suburb of the picturesque provincial capital. “I made the decision to live as a woman [and] my legal identity had to reflect that fact.”
Five years, several appeals, and much jurisprudence later, Montreuil got her wish in a landmark ruling that eased the lives of “trans” people in Quebec and opened a new frontier in the post-Charter search for sexual equality in Canada. But she didn’t stop there — not by a long shot. For the past decade, Montreuil has waged a one-woman war against both private companies and public institutions over claims of employment-related discrimination.
Though she has won most of those battles, she has also suffered some stinging defeats. The most recent came last September at the hands of the Canadian military, when Montreuil lost the longest case ever heard by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on a personal matter. “I will appeal,” she says about the 326-page ruling, which followed 97 days of hearings and 26,000 pages of transcripts. “I was wronged and I want justice.”
To be sure, Montreuil’s legal crusade has garnered headlines and earned the grudging respect of many of her legal adversaries. But it has also carried steep personal and professional prices. In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars she has spent in court costs, Montreuil has been unable to find work as a lawyer in Quebec.
“I’m a pariah in legal circles here,” says the 54-year-old, who takes hormones to grow breasts but has so far stopped short of having sex-reassignment surgery. “I’m an excellent lawyer, but no firm wants to hire a litigious transgender.”
That doesn’t surprise Brenda Cossman. A law professor at the University of Toronto whose teaching and scholarly interests include family law, sexuality, and freedom of expression, Cossman says there is still limited social acceptability around the issue of transgenders — and even less in an appearance-minded profession like law. “The culture is very conservative — not big C, but very traditional,” she tells Canadian Lawyer.
“It took a while for many lawyers to get their heads around women in the profession [and] there are still many questions about openly gay and lesbian lawyers. Transgenders are the next frontier for the acceptance of sexual orientation.”
The hardships of the pioneering life are nothing new for Montreuil. A direct descendent of Patriote leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, she had been waging a personal and public struggle for identity and acceptance her entire life. Born and raised as a boy, Montreuil started wearing her mother’s undergarments as a teenager.
Youthful curiosity, however, gave way to an adult man’s desire to dress like a woman, first privately, then publicly during trips to places like Provincetown, Mass. “I kept that side of me hidden,” recalls Montreuil, who graduated
from the law faculty of Université Laval in 1974.
After articling with Quebec’s transportation department, she went into practice for herself, working 80-plus hours a week on the legal and business matters related to the real-estate and property-management companies she owned and operated in the Quebec City area.
“I had a very diversified and interesting career,” says Montreuil, who went to court on insurance and general litigation cases for herself and clients she usually got to know through her business dealings. “I was whatever people asked me to be.” Montreuil also taught law part time at a local college and authored — as Pierre Montreuil — a half-dozen legal textbooks, the most notable being Le droit, la personne et les affaires, which has been reprinted three times.
In 1986, Montreuil came up with a name for the female alter ego — Micheline. The name, she explains, “is easy to spell and sounds soft to my ears.” Micheline first appeared publicly in Quebec City a decade later, when Montreuil was 40. Her common-law wife of 17 years left soon after and many old friends, including some lawyers, stopped returning calls.
Montreuil was soon leading a harrowing double existence as Pierre and Micheline that required her to rush home and change three or four times a day according to the expectations of the clients or people she had to meet. “I had to put on makeup and get dressed and then remove it all and then put it all back on again,” she recalls. “It drove me crazy. So I decided to stop the ruse and become Micheline full time.”
It wasn’t until the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled on her case on Nov. 7, 2002 that Montreuil was able to add Micheline to her birth certificate. The decision established a new five-year rule under which trans people could legally change their name — without having to undergo sex-altering surgery — if they could show they had been using the name in their everyday lives for at least five years.
“Micheline’s battles really helped to clarify the rules on name changes in Quebec, where the Civil Code makes this more complicated in regards to legal individual identity,” says Sam Singer, a McGill University law school graduate who has worked in the province’s trans-health network and studied definition issues among trans people. “For trans people, she was a real warrior on the issue.”
Since then, however, Montreuil has continued to fight for her rights. In addition to winning cases against both the National Bank of Canada and the Canadian Forces for refusing to hire her, she is involved in two other cases (a $500,000 discrimination suit against a local college and another equally large suit against the Canadian Forces) that are on their way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“I hate going to court but what choice do I have?” asks Montreuil, who married fellow lawyer and best-selling Quebec author Michèle Morgan in 2004 in what was billed as Canada’s first transgender wedding featuring two brides. “I’m doing it because I have to defend my rights. What kind of a lawyer would I be if I didn’t do that?”