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Gender + Sexuality

For MLA Janis Irwin, ‘Queer Joy’ Is Where It’s At

In Edmonton, the NDP politician speaks out for LGBTQ2S+ rights and young Albertans. A Tyee Q&A.

Sarah Krichel 17 Jul 2023The Tyee

Sarah Krichel is The Tyee’s social media manager.

When an attendee of a Leduc, Alberta city council meeting declared in June that the black, brown, blue, pink and white colours in the Progress Pride flag stood for beastiality, necrophilia and pedophilia — followed by a roar of applause from attendees when council tried to shut it down — Alberta NDP MLA Janis Irwin was not surprised.

CTV News Edmonton reported that the woman, who identified herself as Laurel, approached the podium with a man who said he was part of the “freedom movement.” It turned out that he was Phil McDavid, the brother of Elliot McDavid, the man who accosted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Grande Prairie last summer. Elliot had told her to get out of Alberta, despite being from there.

In addition to her rants about the Progress Pride flag, Laurel talked about government-sprayed chemicals changing people’s genders and claimed children are being “brainwashed” by Pride events, reported CTV News.

A few minutes in, Leduc Mayor Bob Young recessed the meeting, but not without difficulty. City Coun. Ryan Pollard took to Twitter and called the event “a disgusting profanity-laced tirade,” and told CTV News Edmonton that after he left council chambers with the mayor, “We could still hear them screaming inside. There was real concern for the safety of the people present.”

“We lost complete control of the meeting, which I have to assume was the whole point.”

“The disheartening part is that it wasn’t shocking to those of us who’ve been exposed to the rise in anti-2SLGBTQ+ rhetoric, but especially towards the trans community,” Irwin told The Tyee.

“Kudos to Leduc city council for shutting it down.”

Irwin, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ2S+ rights throughout her time in office, occupying an important public position in an escalating climate of hate.

In the span of only the last few weeks, a grown man made a Kelowna child cry because he decided that the student athlete at a school track meet was a boy. A University of Waterloo professor and two of her students were stabbed in a gender studies class. Hate crimes targeting sexual orientation are on the rise.

Meanwhile Irwin is a visible member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, putting herself on the firing lines of hate.

Irwin was first elected in 2019 as an MLA and Alberta’s critic for women and LGBTQ2S+ rights. At the time, she was the only openly gay person in the legislature out of 87 people — or “ML-gay,” as she put it.

However, she wasn’t expecting much to do in that realm of work — then-premier Jason Kenney had said he was going to stay away from “divisive social issues.”

“He knows better than to attack our community’s rights,” she thought.

“I was quickly proven wrong.”

One of the first bills passed by the Kenney government was one that would undo protections for queer and trans students. The Education Amendment Act set out to sweepingly replace the 31-year-old Education Act, which had been updated under the NDP with policies that prevented staff from outing students to their parents. It also ensured staff set up a gay-straight alliance, or GSA, immediately after being requested, reported Global News.

“[It] in a nutshell made it more difficult for students to access GSAs in schools. So that set the tone for the four years,” said Irwin.

But today, Irwin is not the only “ML-gay” in the Alberta legislature, and she highlights moments of queer joy on her TikTok. On the hate she receives online, she tells The Tyee she has a different perspective than she used to.

She also has advice for others working on the frontlines in a time of rising hate and violence toward the LGBTQ2S+ community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: You've been a vocal proponent of LGBTQ2S+ rights during your time in office. What is it like for you to engage in this work so publicly, and especially right now?

Janis Irwin: There were a couple of examples of this government being willing to reopen the debate on 2SLGBTQ+ issues, on reproductive rights, the list goes on. Four years later, there's been some progress.

But there’s been an emboldening of folks who are willing to be overtly discriminatory and violent towards the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

I might also add, though, one of the very exciting parts of this last election is the fact that I’m no longer the sole “ML-gay” in the legislature. So there are examples of negative things happening, but I always like to highlight this idea of queer joy.

There’s a little community, Westlock, Alberta, where they were painting a Pride crosswalk, and they've gotten a lot of community pushback. But the town council stood strong and said, “Nope, we’re doing this.”

When they went to paint it [a few weeks ago], they expected a lot of protesters [to] show up and to be potentially even violent.

Instead, over 100 people, hundreds probably, were there to show their support. Yes, we have work to do. But there's also these moments of queer joy and queer support for the community.

Do you receive hate in response to your work on queer rights? If or when you do, how do you handle it?

The bulk of it is on social media. Twitter is the worst. A lot of those people aren't real — they're bots and trolls — but some of them are real.

I [have] experienced a lot of homophobia, transphobia. I’m not trans, but there are some awful people on that platform. Luckily, most people aren't like that face-to-face. I spent many weeks, months, years knocking on doors and it's pretty rare to get someone awful, homophobic, transphobic, [say it] to your face. [But] it does happen. And it did happen to me a couple of times.

It used to impact me a lot more, especially when it was about my looks, my gender, my sexuality. I’ve come to a place where it’s like, “Oh, gosh, it's not about me. It's about these people who clearly are dealing with their own issues.”

But I also have to acknowledge I’m a white cisgender person who has the privilege to call people out, and I’m in a place where I can be open and totally transparent about who I am and not have to worry about the pushback.

There’s a lot of young people out there who can’t. They’re not free to be themselves yet or they’re not able to be visible yet.

Me and others who have the privilege need to speak out need to be visible for those who can’t.

What inspires you to keep going?

I have to keep going because a lot of people can’t. They need people like me who won’t settle for things just being okay.

Recent events have shown there have been these concerted attacks on the community and there are people who will continue to push their homophobic and transphobic hate. I think that’s what really inspires me to keep going, just knowing that I can and I have to.

I’ll get young people reaching out — and I don’t do it for validation — but when you get, like I did not long ago, a young trans person just saying, “Hey, the fact that you are out there and visible means the world to me.” That sort of thing.

You might not always know you're making a difference, but for that one person, I certainly did.

How do you feel your TikTok account has engaged or connected with new or younger audiences on LGBTQ2S+ rights and advocacy?

I'll be honest. I do my own social media, and my TikTok is pretty bad, just because I’m old and not very hip. But I do what I can with my limited skills.

I just think there’s so many young people there, and we need to, I admittedly need to, do a better job at using that platform, because it is, whether you like it or not, a medium where news and social issues are being highlighted.

But it is pretty cool when people say, “Oh, I follow you on TikTok,” and again, a way to sort of sneakily talk about the issues that matter to a lot of young Albertans.

What do you wish more people understood about your local community and the communities you’ve connected with?

There are queer and trans people everywhere. We’re not going away. We’re your neighbours, your friends, your community members. Until all of us are safe, none of us are safe.

And so keep reminding allies in particular [of the] opportunity, not just in Pride month but all year long, to just step up and show your support. Because like I said, queer and trans folks are all around you, and they need your love and support more than ever.

What advice would you give to folks, particularly to LGBTQ2S+ folks, who are working in queer and trans rights-related fields and on the frontlines of this increasing amount of hate?

It’s gotta be hard. I get it. I know that I get it so much less than the trans folks, as an example, or racialized trans folks who we know on average experience far higher levels of violence than their non-racialized, cis counterparts. So just to let those people know that I'm so grateful for the work that they're doing.

And I want them to keep holding people like me to account. People who are legislators and have the ability to try to make a difference from a policy perspective, because there’s a lot of work I believe that all orders of government can keep doing to make our community safer.

Is there any other moment of queer joy that you’d like to share?

There are examples of this happening throughout small towns in Alberta where you might not expect this visible support for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Myself and two of our other queer MLAs, Brooks Arcand-Paul and Court Ellingson from Calgary, went up to Ponoka for their first Pride celebration. And this was in a community where they had just elected in May an MLA who said some of the most disgusting things about the trans community. In particular, she had literally compared trans kids to dog feces.

This was a community where people were definitely hurting. So they had Pride in June and it was great. There were so many people, young people, kids, families out for their first-ever Pride celebration.

So again, you know, they took a moment of pain and responded with love and celebration. That’s pretty cool. We need to keep doing things like that.

Is there anything else that you want to add?

Our entire Alberta NDP team, we’ve got the largest opposition in history. We’ve got Rachel [Notley], a leader who's marched in Pride before I was even born. Don't tell her I said that — but true.

And we’ve got a lot of people who are committed to addressing the rising hate and violence towards the community. And we're committed to 2SLGBTQ+ rights today and every day.

And it can't just be during Pride month. It has to be all year round.  [Tyee]

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