Opinion

The Power of Words: Why Trudeau’s LGBTQ2 Apology Matters

We heard yesterday and know very well, we can and must do better.

By Julian Paquette 30 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Julian Paquette is a writer, organizer and LGBTQ2SIA+ rights advocate whose writing has been published across Canada.

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Julian Paquette: ‘It is no longer socially acceptable to hate in Canada.’ Photo by Howard Fry.

In 1993 I was 13 years old. Just a year before, the Ontario Court of Appeals ruled that excluding sexual orientation from the Canadian Human Rights Act was discriminatory. Three years after 1993, sexual orientation was added into the Canadian Human Rights Act.

When I was 13, I didn’t know this. I lived in Sarnia, Ontario — a small industrial border city that didn’t concern itself with such matters.

It was also the year a classmate first hurled the word “dyke” at me. The word spread like a virus though the classroom and soon every day all but two of my peers supplemented that word for my name. Whenever I spoke, moved, breathed — I was “dyyy-ke” and sometimes, “you f------ dyke.”

I didn’t know how to defend myself; I thought I deserved it. No one stood up for me. Where was the teacher during this? Where was anyone? In Sarnia then, there was nothing for people like me. There were no role models. Few, if any, resources. I was on my own.

My eating disorder began that year, and I didn’t fully kick it for another decade. I stayed in the local psychiatric ward several times as a teenager, sometimes locked up in a cold metal room with a mattress on the floor watched by a camera. I was a kid. I survived — but not all of us do.

This Tuesday, Nov. 28, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to members of the LGBTQ2 community from across Canada for the federal government’s actions against thousands of Canadian public service personnel (including members of the foreign service, military, and RCMP).

In 1976, the Canadian military specifically banned homosexuality in its ranks. This was lifted in 1992. From the 1950s to 1990s, countless federal employees were targeted, harassed, assaulted and lost their jobs because of their sexuality or suspected sexuality.

Imagine what these people went through. Imagine how the shame and trauma has impacted their lives. Imagine what this apology meant to them.

On Tuesday, I watched the leaders of almost all parties defend LGBTQ2 people who have been let down and harmed by our government and — by extension — our society. (I say “almost” keeping in mind Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s track record and his somewhat tepid statement in the House).

Even so, all party leaders — even Scheer — stood up for human rights. This marked a historic display of cross-party solidarity.

We’ve reached a tipping point: it is no longer socially acceptable to hate in Canada. And yes, of course, as we heard yesterday and know very well, we can — and must — do better.

Government practices and policies need to change so that they honour the new legislative right to be free from discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, said NDP MP Guy Caron.

The blood ban for men who have sex with men needs to be addressed, as does the criminalization of HIV, LGBTQ2 youth homelessness, LGBTQ suicide and substance abuse rates, and many other issues.

Words have the power to degrade and destroy, and they have the power to rebuild and uplift. An apology does not change the past although when paired with action, it changes tomorrow’s past: the future.

This week the Prime Minister of Canada made history when he said, “To the kids who are listening at home … We are all worthy of love and deserving of respect … who you are is valid.”

And he said: “To members of the LGBTQ2 communities, young and old, here in Canada and around the world: you are loved. And we support you.”

Youth alongside adults across the country will absorb these words. As will parents, teachers and community, religious and government leaders.

When our leaders stand up for those who are discriminated against, their words — and actions — tell us that we are not alone and harm will not be tolerated.

It takes a long time for apologies and laws to catch up with our institutions, our governments, our school yards and our streets. Yet it is possible.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, and fellow elected officials, for your powerful statements this week.

Now, let’s get back to work.  [Tyee]

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