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In a phone call to a Vancouver-area beauty salon, a masculine voice inquires about the availability of Brazilian waxes for “Jonathan.”
“I’m transgender, just so you’re aware, I just want to make sure it’s not an issue,” says Jonathan Yaniv, a trans woman who is now named Jessica and who, on documents like her driver’s licence, has officially changed her gender to female. Yaniv would later say she made the June 2018 recording, which she shared with the National Post, in anticipation of discrimination based on past experience.
“I’m so sorry,” replies the employee of the salon franchise, which has since closed.
“I guess I’ll see you in court,” Yaniv says, and abruptly hangs up.
In another call a month later to a salon in Delta, B.C., Yaniv asks about price.
“Come here, then we can talk to you,” says the woman. And then, “F—— bastard… We don’t do. Are you mentally sick? This is a salon. Why do you keep calling?”
Yaniv, 32, is pursuing more than a dozen identical human rights complaints against salons for refusing to wax her crotch. She still has male genitals, but says she is on a wait list for genital surgery.
As the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has heard Yaniv’s complaints in recent weeks, public outrage has been roused over the possibility that anti-discrimination laws require women to wax male genitalia — especially vulnerable, racialized women working precarious service jobs, often out of their own homes with children around.
The tribunal member hearing the cases has scolded Yaniv, saying her behaviour in pursuing case after case, even after the tribunal cautioned against wasteful “unnecessary duplication,” has not been “conducive to having the issue resolved on its merits,” and “opens a valid question about her motives in filing so many complaints.”
The Tribunal member also called “improper” Yaniv’s tactic of withdrawing complaints against some of her targets who obtained free legal representation and made clear they intended to defend themselves at a hearing, rather than go through the tribunal’s settlement process.
But the member has also explicitly refuted that Yaniv’s conduct is vexatious or that her complaints are frivolous. Quite the opposite. “Waxing can be critical gender-affirming care for transgender women,” the member wrote in a procedural decision in May. “At the same time, it is a very intimate service that is sometimes performed by women who are themselves vulnerable. JY’s complaints raise a novel issue around the rights and obligations of transgender women and service providers in these circumstances.”
Novel or frivolous — or perhaps somehow both — Yaniv’s case stands out for another reason. She is an unusually problematic complainant, not simply because of her determined efforts at what looks like deliberate entrapment, and the self-promotion, often in the form of luridly argued Twitter fights, that was the key reason a publication ban on her identity was lifted in July.
The main reason for the recent outrage is that Yaniv is also the subject of many allegations of harassment, including claims she has a history of vulgar sexualized online communication with teenage girls, at least one of whom has contacted a national tip-line for reporting the sexual exploitation of children. Yaniv has denied these allegations. She also has such a focus on the Asian background of the salon workers in question that the tribunal has cautioned her for fixating on racial stereotypes about South Asian Canadians and making “derogatory assumptions” about the “culture” of Honveer Randhawa, legal counsel to one of the salons.
As well as a self-described victim, Yaniv is also a case study in why a human rights complaints system designed to be easily accessible is also vulnerable to abuse.
In an interview with the Post, Yaniv described what she claimed is a broad intolerance for trans people among the South Asian women in B.C.’s esthetics business, in line with the rude treatment she claims to receive from bus drivers.
“I hate to put race into it, but it seems there is a lot of negativity and lot of pushback toward LGBTQ from the East Indian culture,” Yaniv said.
John Carpay, president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is representing some of the respondent salon workers, said the refusal to service Yaniv was not discriminatory “because the 14 women were not being asked to wax a gender identity, they were being asked to wax male genitalia.”
One of these women is Punjabi, another is an observant Sikh, according to a Washington, D.C., woman behind a fundraiser for these women. (The Post agreed not to identify her because of her concern she might become a target for harassment.) Not all are South Asian. One is literally Brazilian. Some have already settled. One is about to give birth. None agreed to an interview.
Carpay said there are no obvious precedents to offer guidance. This is no wonder, given that gender identity was only recently, and not uncontroversially, added as a protected ground in federal human rights law.
“We treat grounds (of discrimination in human rights law) as if they are all analogous, and discrimination follows the same patterns,” said Richard Moon, a constitutional law expert at the University of Windsor. The reality is that the grounds are different. Some are visible like race, others are objectively provable like marital status, while others, like religion or sexual orientation, require a more subjective inquiry of a person’s conscience.
Yaniv’s case has revealed many new legal perils and moral quandaries, not least for what has lately emerged about her own controversial history. Litigating anti-transgender discrimination cases is now, as Carpay said, inadvertently, “a whole different ball game.”
Cimorelli is a pop band of sisters from California who started singing covers on YouTube in 2007 and have since released three original albums and won a Teen Choice Award. Their image is wholesome, and some of their music is Christian.
Louise Nussac, now 26 and a resident of Paris, discovered them a few years ago and instantly loved them. Soon she was a big part of their social media world, retweeting their messages of positivity, an influencer in their subculture.
She started to notice something. The Cimorelli girls were kind and soft spoken, but on Facebook, their messages were ironic and harsh, not how this type of girl band would be expected to talk to its fans.
Thus did she meet Yaniv, whose consulting business Cimorelli had hired to get rid of imposter accounts, where people not associated with the band pretended to be them. Yaniv confirmed she did this for five years until 2017. (The Post’s message to Cimorelli’s current management went unacknowledged.)
Yaniv says she has been transgender since she was six, but was scared to come out. She was treated through her teen years for gender identity disorder with associated depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. She described having many short relationships with girls starting around age 14.
Yaniv first came to public attention as a 21-year-old computer student at Surrey, B.C.’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University when she promoted a National Sex Day on Facebook, in what was later revealed to be a viral marketing project. It worked, and quickly had more than 100,000 members.
“This was all marketing, and it played so well into my hands,” she told the Post. “I knew sex sells.”
Later, after working in call centres and in tech support, Yaniv created JY Knows It Business Consulting, focused on internet support. She ran it for several years as Jonathan before changing her name and documents gradually over the last year or so, coinciding with her campaign to expose anti-trans discrimination in waxing salons.
Back in 2013, Nussac got the sense Yaniv was behind some of those fake accounts, which all had similar Asian names but the same voice and habits, almost as if Yaniv was creating problems just to solve them.
“I started being wary of this person,” said Nussac. As she tells it, she had good reason. Yaniv had been shutting down fake accounts by sending pictures of his penis to the people behind them — which, given the band’s primary fan base and correspondence Nussac said she saw at the time, were likely young girls.
“It was very twisted,” Nussac said.
Yaniv denied this. The Post has not been able to independently confirm Nussac’s claim and could not reach the alleged recipients for comment.
As Nussac’s influence in Cimorelli’s social media world came to rival Yaniv’s, she banned her from the band’s Facebook page and Nussac claimed Yaniv posted her private messages — amounting to a rant against Yaniv — with an encouragement for other Cimorelli fans to criticize her. Nussac claimed she got those messages by using threats of public shaming and promises of access to the band members to coerce a 12-year-old girl to access her friend’s Twitter messages. Nussac said this girl and others came to her for help after having similar experiences with Yaniv.
Nussac also started being targeted by harassment on Ask.Fm, a site where users can ask others questions anonymously — messages that would call her a porn star and slut who should kill herself.
“Please jump in front of a speeding train,” one read. The Post has seen these messages and others, but has not been able to independently confirm they were from Yaniv. Nussac is convinced they were; she denies it.
Others related to Cimorelli, and focused on periods and menstrual products. Menstruation is a preoccupation of Yaniv’s alleged harassment across online platforms, especially making it a subject of conversation with teenage girls — talking about needing menstrual products and seeking advice, often in anticipation of having to give it to some other girl who is having her first period.
She would talk about her “dick,” Nussac said, or muse that she would “jizz himself.” (The Post has not been able to independently review these messages.)
“It was an ever-changing story,” Nussac said. “(She) kept asking very intrusive questions.”
Menstruation was also a theme of Yaniv’s declarations of sexual interest in Jessica Rumpel of Washington State, who corresponded with Yaniv over social media about five years ago when she was 14. Rumpel, who is now an adult, said she filed an anonymous report with the Canadian child-exploitation tipline Cybertip.ca, but has not been contacted by police. Yaniv has not been charged over the incidents, and none of the allegations have been tested in court.
Yaniv denies sending these and other messages to young girls about menstruation and sex that have been attributed to her as screenshots of the correspondence have been promulgated online. Yaniv herself claims to be the target of harassment and impersonation.
“They’ve accused me of outrageous stuff,” she said. “They’re obviously not real.”
Rumpel has also shared recordings of Yaniv making sexual comments in the voice of the Sesame Street character Elmo. “That is my voice,” Yaniv admitted to the Post, but said she had never sent the recordings to Rumpel, but rather sent them to a friend as a joke at least six years ago.
Yaniv said she has not been contacted by police in response to Rumpel’s complaint, and does not remember her.
Nussac said she got Yaniv to stop harassing her by threatening to go to police, though she was bluffing; French police had already told her there was nothing they could do.
“I think (she) got bored,” Nussac said. “It’s definitely a nemesis-type thing. (She) hated that I didn’t go down without a fight.”
Although they had been on an inwardly spiralling orbit for years, the worlds of Cimorelli teen girl fandom and the waxing salons of B.C.’s Lower Mainland first collided one day last November when, yet again, Louise Nussac got an anonymous message.
It was from someone seeking information on Yaniv in relation to the waxing complaints. The story was still a minor scandal of niche interest, and a strict publication ban kept Yaniv’s name out of it, but it had more than momentum. Screenshots had begun to circulate appearing to show a long history of thoroughly creepy behaviour.
When the tribunal lifted the publication ban in July because Yaniv outed herself online, she burst onto the scene like a punchline in a windblown purple ballgown, which she had worn for glamour shots at a Miss B.C. beauty pageant. Here was a caricatured image of an apparent trans bogeyman, in a dress reminiscent of the one worn by Ursula the Sea Witch, allegedly talking about pestering little girls in bathrooms for pleasure. Her persona, and the allegations against her, were seized upon by those critical of the legal and societal recognition of trans people and their rights. People labelled transphobes for expressing concern that a trans identity could be a vehicle for a male predator trumpeted the allegations against Yaniv as vindication.
On Twitter, where battles over identity are at their most vitriolic, Yaniv had some exchanges that ended with her adversaries, free-speech activist Lindsay Shepherd among them, misgendering her by calling her a man, and then getting banned by the platform for this violation of its rules.
The whole thing went viral, like Yaniv’s National Sex Day, only more so. The British comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted about it. Donald Trump Jr. cited the Yaniv case as a reason to vote for his father in 2020.
Camilla Long in The Times of London described Yaniv as “horrifying” and part of the “provisional wing of the trans lobby,” an allusion to paramilitary terrorists in Northern Ireland.
And Yaniv didn’t shrink from this new, hotter spotlight, even appearing for an interview on Alex Jones’ deranged online conspiracy show, the U.S.-based Infowars.
At a stroke, the story made human rights codes and transgender rights politics seem grotesque and dangerous.
Public policy is not yet aligned to the legal protection of trans people from discrimination, but as B.C. trans activist Morgane Oger told the Post, this story is just a mess. Entrapment is a blunt solution, and the trans community has “better things to do than be on permanent predator watch,” Oger said.
“I think that people with a history of being accused of predatory behaviour shouldn’t be the ones asking for access to services in which women are vulnerable,” said Oger, who was among the first to investigate Yaniv’s past, and who told the Post she has found several other young women who she says are still scared of Yaniv after engaging on social media and being subjected to strange fetishistic fantasies.
“The harm that Yaniv does still reverberates,” Oger said. “I don’t know what well-deserved harassment looks like, but she’s certainly paying in spades for her misbehaviour.”
Both Nussac and Oger entertained the thought that Yaniv is a plant, a double agent of the extreme right, perhaps a social experiment of sorts. She is just too preposterous, a fairy tale trans villain, “too parodic to be true,” as Nussac put it.
But Nussac knew Yaniv was real, and Oger knows much of Yaniv’s recent history. Whether she is pretending to be trans does not really matter, Oger said. That question goes nowhere.
“It’s not up to me,” Oger said.
Her fear, however, is that this story has grown to be about more than just Yaniv, or about Yaniv as not only a flawed complainant, but a representative one, whose case will set a benchmark in the public mind for how, when and even if transgender people ought to be accommodated.
Yaniv has hurt feelings and roused fear of “blowback” among trans people by commandeering the discussion of prejudice with such an attention grabbing story, too easily dismissed as fantasy by an already skeptical public, Oger said.
People in marginalized communities are already sensitive to misbehaviour of their own, she said, and Yaniv’s advocacy does not grant her a “hall pass for bad deeds.”
“I don’t think this person’s desires reflect the desires of the transgender community,” Oger said.
Carpay said he sees the matter of the salon-workers as a Charter case. Canadians are guaranteed liberty and security of the person, which is incompatible with a legal obligation to handle male genitalia. So Canada’s constitution trumps B.C.’s human rights code, and that is that.
If the history of Canadian human rights law is any guide, it will not be that simple.
Next week, Yaniv is to submit closing arguments, and then await a decision.
“I do see this discrimination as systemic,” Yaniv said. “It really hits home to me… This has to be fixed, not just for me, but for society in general.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019