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LGBT progress is a Canadian story


As we reflect on the Conservative Party convention voting two-to-one to raise the white flag and abandon its longstanding policy to deny LGBT love, we can be amazed at how far Canada has come in such a short time.

Within my lifetime, the legal classification of homosexuality as a deviant, disturbed pathology was brutally enforced on playgrounds and back alleys by ‘normal, healthy’ bullies, conceptually reinforced with electro-shock and aversion therapy by medical ‘experts,’ morally proselytized by clerics in every religion, scandalized in every form of media and physically surveilled and controlled by police forces throughout the country.

When my best friend in seventh grade got beat up, his father’s advice to ‘man-up’ and ‘learn to fight back’ convinced him the problem lay within him. The smirk on the bully’s father taught the bully that violence in defence of the normal order was righteous. The school’s silence taught confused kids to hide and question themselves.

In high school, two of my queer friends committed suicide. One put his father’s shotgun in his mouth; the other drank antifreeze. Both had been outed as being fags. Both had seen school counsellors who advised their problem was psychiatric. Both had seen psychiatrists who kindly suggested this pathology could be controlled if they worked hard enough.

In early adulthood I watched over a dozen of my closest soulmates die premature deaths from AIDS while governments refused adequate funding due to the backlash and stigma associated with this ‘gay disease.’

The distance we have come is remarkable.

But don’t confuse this painful social transformation with righteous enlightenment and noble relinquishing of power.

Academic discussions of a Psychiatric Society did not transform the deviant homosexual subculture into the gay community. It was legions of diagnosed deviants who collectively fought back to redefine themselves and overturn those labels and institutions.

It was not ‘new thinking’ from police academies that changed police attitudes and treatment of queers. It was decades of organized defence by the LGBT community of our sexual practices and institutions that forced new thinking.

Each wave of organized defence in Canada built on previous battles, producing one of the world’s strongest and most politicized LGBT communities.

As bars were raided, individuals organized, formed groups and changed laws. As LGBT bookstores and newspapers were charged, a community mobilized and developed expertise.

When police raided the Toronto LGBT baths (the second-largest mass arrest in Canadian history), a true social movement and new militant understanding were forged.– LGBT groups and political organizations bloomed across Canada.

Individuals saw it as their duty to ‘come out’ and use their lives to educate and transform.

When the community was left to its own devices with the horrific onslaught of AIDS (originally GRID, ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’), LGBT organizations evolved from a group of isolated patients to a community of active resistance, partnership and advocacy.

It’s no wonder such a mature, developed, non-stigmatized (read: Proud!) community challenged head-on the embedded legal apparatus that criminalized our lives and relationships. It’s no wonder we were ahead of the curve internationally.

By the 1990s, the Canadian LGBT community, forged in the fire of fighting for our desires and freedoms, was ready to battle for our relationships. It was time society recognized our love as well as our rights, freedoms and sanity.

Again, ensuing victories were not gifts from politicians – they came from countless demonstrations, years of financing, protracted legal battles and challenging institutions and attitudes.

It was also LGBT activism that transformed the culture and policies of political parties.

In 1994, the political and moral failure of Ontario’s NDP with Bill 167 solidified within the party that anything short of recognizing LGBT issues as fundamental human rights is forever unacceptable.

It took a decade of legal victories, queer activism and a growing urban LGBT constituency within and without the federal Liberals before a Prime Minister who could barely vocalize the L and G words stopped delaying and finally passed gay marriage in 2005.

Now, in 2016, with Canadians overwhelmingly rejecting efforts to marginalize LGBT lives, Conservatives supporting equal rights have joined other party members who see the political writing on the wall to end the last organized, legislative resistance to LGBT love.

While I am amazed at the breadth of these successes, I realize the next victories — those of the transgender communities — also will be won not by the magnanimity of society, but rather by the fights waged by transgender people themselves, including the marginal, young and racialized.

In them and us, I have full confidence.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Toronto Star.