Chairman's Desk

This Pride month evokes the tension between battles for legal rights and public recognition. For Canadians, that history is unique

Happy Pride. It’s become a refrain you’ll hear again and again this month — from colleagues, friends, family, your favourite sports team, your bank, your dentist…

Indeed, Pride, and the deluge of rainbow ribbons that arrives with it, has become the event of the season for corporate Canada.

Most would agree that the rush of brands to wrap themselves in the rainbow flag for the month of June is both symbolically and practically important.

And despite its faults — it has been decried as virtue signalling, or worse, “pinkwashing” — I will happily take even performative displays of LGTBQ support over the alternative: deafening silence.

That is especially true this year, when so much seems so uncertain. In Canada, the vestiges of institutional homophobia have reared their heads as the government rushes to ban conversion therapy and faces pressure to end the discriminatory blood ban. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have recently descended into a politically vacuous and morally reprehensible fixation on trans rights.

And before the month is out, the U.S. Supreme Court will deliver its ruling in a case with important implications for LGBTQ rights: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case, which hinges on whether religiously affiliated foster care agencies are entitled to turn away same-sex couples, may have a disappointing outcome.

Legislative battles that emerge from embers. Court challenges that spring from the fertile minds of lawyers. Homophobic responses rooted in everyday life. Reminders all of the work that remains to be done.

Over the decades, there has always been strong tension within the LGBTQ community around how to win the fight for equality, with much of that argument coming down to the proverbial question about the chicken or the egg.

Some believed that we had to first win the battle for the hearts and minds of our family and friends, now fashionably called Allies, before we could hope to get the laws changed.

Others believed Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” These people believed it was essential to win in the courts first.

Today, it is obvious that these two approaches, more than not being mutually exclusive, are in fact mutually dependent.

In the pre-Stonewall era of the 1960s, the fight for equality hinged on recognition as a “respectable” minority that could assimilate into the establishment. LGBTQ leaders emphasized propriety in the public eye and quiet recognition in the courts.

Then came Stonewall, and shortly thereafter, the Pride parades we know today. Singular moments when the focus shifted toward public recognition and visibility. In the United States, that shift came before the eventual legal victories, wherein the rights of LGBTQ Americans were affirmed by the Supreme Court.

In Canada, the story is somewhat different; the distinctions in our own fight for equality mimic the nuances of our system. That’s largely because of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the fact that — despite the grumbling of certain politicians — Canadians are a people of the charter.

True, Canadian activists needed the courts to enshrine LGBTQ rights, and yes, a great effort was made to win over the hearts and minds of Canadians.

But ultimately, once the LGBTQ community was able to transform our fight into a charter fight, the battle was won. By wrapping our fight in the charter, Canadians could see that it was also their fight — that a threat to any charter protection was a threat to all Canadians.

And so, the tension between public advocacy and legal recognition, which was unique in Canada, provided the most precious of results. It provided us a country where — while law has given us equality — the people have given us true and genuine inclusiveness.

An inclusiveness which will not soon disappear. An inclusiveness that, whilst imperfect, is still something that makes this gay man, partner, father and grandfather a proud Canadian.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 6, 2021.

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