By Chelsea Looysen
As we fight for the recognition of same-sex couples and protection under anti-harassment laws, the backlash makes the struggle look quite daunting for people who have been oppressed on the basis of their sexual orientation. Homophobia is woven so tightly into the social structure that challenging its legislation is a very difficult battle.
When the same-sex marriage debate became widespread throughout Canada, Canadians for Equal Marriage, a grassroots organization with chapters all over Canada, took the lead. They have developed a broad-based national campaign that is aimed at ensuring that the voices of lesbians and gays are heard. Founded by Egale Canada and the Metropolitan Community Church, the organization is leading the national fight for equal marriage and securing fundamental rights for lesbians and gays. Their campaigns are also designed to confront the backlash that has arisen from those opposed to recognizing same-sex couples.
Canada is a country divided by hatred and fear fuelled by the build up to the federal election. Demanding rights for an oppressed group often results in defensive reactions by some of those who are privileged enough to have those rights. Focus on the Family (Canada), a conservative, right-wing fundamentalist organization, announced this spring that they are fundraising for a planned $1.5-million national media ad campaign in support of “traditional” marriage. They see the coming election as “a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness of the value and significance of marriage, its incomparable benefits to society.” This means that for many, same-sex marriage will be the issue that decides how they vote in the upcoming federal election.
Oppression for Votes
The success of some politicians running in an election relies on the presence of homophobia. Many politicians in Canada and the United States have openly admitted that they are more concerned with votes than granting equality to gays and lesbians. Bush recently called on Congress to approve a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Many see this as an election tactic to appeal to conservative groups and motivated solely by the goal of becoming re-elected.
While the issue at hand is same-sex marriage, the underlying issue is much larger; the acceptance of gays and lesbians in our community. Lesbians and gays live in fear of being harassed, physically attacked or even killed if they are open about their sexual orientation. Since their freedom to live their lives is limited by this reality, Bill C-250, the Canadian anti-hate legislation bill, will protect gays and lesbians from extreme hate propaganda.
Ignorance and fear has bred backlash to this attempt at equality. Dr. Charles McVety, president of both the Canada Family Action Coalition and the Canada Christian College, published a recent news release stating that, “Bill C-250 passed just in time to silence opposition to same-sex marriage during the election.” He is urging “all Canadians not to vote for Members of Parliament who passed this new law.” He is also concerned that, “many citizens may take heed to the threat of incarceration and not express their positions in public discourse.”
Another example of backlash occurred on April 17, 2004. A rally was organized on Parliament Hill to protest against this Bill, arguing that it criminalizes the expression of opinions against homosexual behaviour. That people would call on Parliament to prevent the protection of a vulnerable group demonstrates how far we are from true equality.
The Cost of Homophobia
Homophobia causes preventable health problems and increased health care costs. In 200l, Gay & Lesbian Health Services of Saskatoon released a study that looked at the economic impact of homophobia in Canada. They found that homophobia costs Canada at least $8 billion a year in increased health care costs and loss of productivity. Other studies have shown alarmingly high rates of suicide, substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem, school drop-out, and unemployment in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In a study conducted by The Institute for Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan, it was revealed that as many as 5,500 Canadians die premature deaths each year as a result of homophobia. These deaths are due to the stressors of living in a homophobic environment and a society that devalues the lives of LGBT people.
The fear of homophobic retaliation keeps many LGBT people silenced, which perpetuates inequality, and many policies are in place to keep them silent. For example, most daily newspapers will not publish anonymous letters to the editor. If members of an oppressed group wish to address inequality, they are forced to have their name in print if they want to be heard. Even someone who has been “out” for a number of years may harbour legitimate fears of possible repercussions that could follow, given the recent reactions to struggles for equality.
Another silencing factor associated with homophobia is the fear of being included in the backlash. Saskatchewan teens have identified that they are afraid to be friends with gay peers as they too become targets of harassment. Many same-sex parents hide a great deal of their lives to prevent their children from being ostracized by other children. Lesbians and gays who are teachers, coaches, clergy members and many other professions remain closeted for fear of losing their jobs and to avoid harassment. People continue to be treated unfairly based on their sexual orientation despite the presence of laws and collective agreements in place to protect them.
Aside from gays and lesbians, there are many others who are being hurt by the failure to accept LGBT people in our society; it also affects everyone who knows they have a gay family member, friend, teacher, neighbour or care-giver. Someone you love is gay. Homophobia is everyone’s issue.
Time for Change
Solutions exist to take action against this inequality. Contact organizations in your area such as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) or a gay/straight alliance group to build allies. Check out websites for organizations like Egale or Canadians for Equal Marriage to keep informed. At election time, make educated decisions before voting to ensure the politicians will be part of the solution instead of the problem. Walk in your city’s gay pride parade—a large percentage of the people in the parades are allies who march for support of their gay brothers and sisters. In Regina alone, there are several events that are organized by the gay community but exist for the larger community: Queer City Cinema 5, Pride Week events, and a concert by Prairie Pride Chorus—to name only a few. Check out queer culture in your city and see it’s not much different from any other cultural event. Only when we stand together will we make our society more understanding of the issues facing gays, lesbians and other oppressed people.
This is everyone’s struggle. Our culture is far more tolerant and accepting than mainstream media would have us believe. Much of the fear of accepting gays and lesbians is based on a lack of knowledge and fear of being included in the backlash. We need to listen critically and question homophobic remarks and actions, such as those taken by Focus on the Family or the arguments linking equality for LGBT to limiting the freedom of expression. Until same-sex couples are legally permitted to marry, until anti-hate legislation is not only passed but widely recognized, homophobia will remain a disease of our culture. Future studies will continue to show the high incidence of premature deaths of LGBT people. Suicide will remain a solution considered by many troubled LGBT youth. Fear of homophobic retaliation will prevent us from making allies and lifting the shroud of ignorance from our oppressors. Is this the world we want for our future generations?
Chelsea Looysen is the administrator for Briarpatch and sits on the Board of Directors. She is actively involved with several LGBT groups including Lavender Social Club and Prairie Pride Chorus. For more information, check these websites: Egale at www.egalecanada.ca, and Canadians for Equal Marriage at www.equal-marriage.ca.