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May 17 marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. While an important occasion to recognize, one day is insufficient to address an issue with such an extensive history and continuing impact on Canadian society.
With that said, let’s take a deeper dive, drawing inspiration from foundational changemakers in Canada’s LGBTQ movement, looking at some of its biggest victories, and examining disturbing trends that show why the need to fight hate is as great as ever.
Remembering the trailblazers
Canadian LGBTQ activists like Jim Deva, Jan Morris, Mary-Woo Sims, Svend Robinson and Dr. Peter Jepson-Young each made a lasting impact in their own style, championing freedom of expression, breaking political barriers and saving lives.
Jim Egan rejected unfair portrayals of the LGBTQ community, providing a more positive account of gays and lesbians in the media, and alongside his partner, fought to show that same-sex relationships are every bit as love-filled and deserving of recognition as heterosexual relationships.
Delwin Vriend, fired from his teaching job in Alberta after coming out, refused to accept that he needed to hide who he was, prompting a landmark challenge that would transform the legal rights of Canada’s LGBTQ community.
El-Farouk Khaki, deeply aware of the complexities of being a gay immigrant and Muslim, created new bonds within spiritual and cultural communities so that LGBTQ newcomers could connect to their faith without facing rejection.
It's important to remember the work of the Canadian trailblazers in the fight to obtain more justice for the LGBTQ community, writes Spencer van Vloten @SpencerVanCity @may17org #cdnpoli #StopDiscrimination #IDAHOBIT2023 #LGBTQ
These are just a few of the changemakers who strove for a cause that went far beyond themselves. They proved their resilience but were ultimately fighting for post-resilience societies where people do not face adversity simply because of who they love or how they express themselves.
It was a result of their courage that many victories were earned.
Celebrating the victories
Canada has come a long way.
At the time of Confederation, same-sex intimacy was punishable by death.
In the 1950s, the federal government surveilled people suspected of being gay and invested in the “fruit machine,” a laughable yet sinister device created to identify gay men so they could be culled from the civil service, RCMP and military.
Then in 1965, Everett Klippert was sentenced to life in prison after admitting to having consensual sex with other men, being deemed a dangerous sexual offender for his sexual orientation.
Sadly, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the ruling, but outcry over his case led to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, which was followed by unprecedented community mobilization of the LGBTQ community after gay bathhouse raids in Toronto and Montreal, and the arrest of two lesbian couples in New Brunswick.
Since that time, many steps forward have been taken. Bans have been placed on conversion therapy and lifted on blood donations from gay men. Marriage and adoption have been expanded to same-sex couples, and human rights acts have been updated to protect sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Members of the LGBTQ community who were unjustly persecuted or fired from the civil service, RCMP or military during the fruit machine days have received apologies and compensation, while last year, the federal government announced an investment of $100 million to fund the country’s first national LGBTQ action plan.
And it comes at a much-needed time.
With major progress has come major pushback, worrying signs that homophobia and transphobia are surging in Canada and around the world.
Nationally, there has been a substantial rise in hate crimes since 2020, the large majority targeting the LGBTQ community, as observed in a vitriolic public tirade incurred by a Vancouver couple earlier in the year.
Members of Canada's LGBTQ community are far more likely to be physically and sexually assaulted, face workplace discrimination and be homeless — with parental rejection leading LGBTQ youth to leave home earlier.
All this takes its toll, and sexual minority Canadians are three times more likely to report poor mental health and suicidal thoughts.
Perhaps most disturbing, homosexuality is still illegal in 67 countries and punishable by death in 11, while 14 countries criminalize the gender expression of transgender persons. Just a few months ago, Uganda even passed a law outlawing merely identifying as a member of the LGBTQ community — so draconian that it is believed to be the first of its kind.
(Use the vertical scroll bar on the right to see Human Dignity Trust's entire map.)
Now is not a time to be complacent.
Keeping up the fight
Some critics claim the LGBTQ community has achieved equality and no longer needs to fight and that sexual and gender orientation are private issues that have no business being taken to the streets or expressed publicly.
But even the most cursory look into the issue shows equality clearly does not exist and when the LGBTQ community is attacked in public and targeted systematically by elected officials, it is still very much a public issue.
Far from it being time to ride off complacently into the sunset, the last few years show exactly why there is still a long way to go.
Drawing on inspiration from the trailblazers of the past, the fight must continue not only on May 17 or during Pride, but every day.
Spencer van Vloten is a nationally published writer and community advocate. He is a recipient of the BC Medal of Good Citizenship, Vancouver Excellence Award, and was named the Rick Hansen Foundation Difference Maker of the Year. You can find more of his work at SpencerV.ca or follow him on Twitter at @SpencerVanCity