Canada is witnessing a rising tide of queerphobic hate.
It’s evident in the anti-drag protests sweeping the country. It’s obvious in the transphobic protests being staged outside Canada’s women’s prisons. And it’s leading LGBTQ2S+ people to show up and speak out for the community’s right to exist.
Counter-protests against anti-LGBTQ2S+ demonstrators are an effective way of combating hate, and should be an essential part of our tool kit as queer activists. Indeed, history is on our side.
LGBTQ2S+ advocates have much to learn about the art of counter-protesting from the history of pro-choice activism.
“Clinic defence” has been a relatively common pro-choice tactic in the U.S. in the years since Roe v. Wade. Jen Roesch, an American pro-choice organizer and former Planned Parenthood patient, recalled one such defence in an interview with the Nation, “Planned Parenthood Asked These Pro-Choice Activists Not to Rally Outside Its Clinic. Here’s Why They Did Anyway.” In 1992, the pro-life organization Operation Rescue tried to shut down an abortion clinic in Buffalo, New York, and Roesch and others participated in a counter-protest to protect clinic patients. “We had to link arms and clear a path for patients. We squared off with the antis, there was some physical confrontation, but that’s what it took to keep the clinic open,” she says.
However, pro-choice counter-protests like the one staged in Buffalo have their critics. In the U.S., Planned Parenthood has a policy of “non-engagement” with the pro-life activists who frequently demonstrate outside their locations. As the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho explained in a Q&A about why they discourage counter-protests, it is their belief that “any form of protest outside of our health centers, even in support, is not beneficial to our patients. Our patients are simply trying to access their healthcare, so having demonstrators of any kind outside the health center, can create an intimidating and disruptive experience for them.” And Planned Parenthood is not alone in this: many abortion providers oppose pro-choice counter-protests outside their clinics.
But some pro-choice organizers consider this a “defeatist strategy.” In an era where abortion rights are under increasing legislative and judicial attack, non-engagement seems outmoded—even dangerous.
Some of the best known LGBTQ2S+ counter-protests have been directed at demonstrations by the American hate group Westboro Baptist Church. The church is known for its extreme homophobic slogans, which members famously displayed on signs outside of Matthew Shepard’s funeral in 1998; as well as for picketing high schools that maintain gay-straight alliances.
At Shepard’s funeral, a dozen counter-protesters shielded mourners from the church’s hateful messaging by dressing in angel costumes—replete with wings 10 feet wide and seven feet tall—and blocking the picketers from view.
The tactic has since been replicated in counter-protests across the U.S. Angelic counter-protestors spread their wings at the funeral of Andrew Leinonen, a victim of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. An organizer of that counterprotest told NBC News, “Angel wings are meant as a loving support to the fallen, not to create more anger or violence.” And they worked: one attendee stated that the Westboro Baptist Church was completely drowned out.
More recent months have witnessed public clashes between protestors and counter-protestors over drag shows here in Canada, particularly in Calgary, which has become a hot spot for anti-drag activism.
Protests in the city have particularly targeted Reading with Royalty drag storytelling events at Calgary libraries. When anti-drag protestors appeared outside the Country Hills Library late last month, they were met by counter-protestors from the Fairy Guardian Project wearing pink angel wings meant to create a safe passage into the library. This was the group’s first demonstration.
Angel-wing counter-protests are nonviolent and, according to their originator at the Shepard funeral, Romaine Patterson, “bring forth a message of peace and love.” Which, in itself, contains a lesson for would-be LGBTQ2S+ activists: our counter-protests do not need to be aggressive to be effective.
Shane Onyou, a Reading with Royalty drag storyteller who performed at the Country Hills Library event, says the counter-protesters’ presence encouraged a sense of safety.
“For a long time, we had been doing these readings, and as packed as they were, it was just us and the people who were coming. And now that we have all this hate out there, to have safe passage and support around you, it felt very heartwarming; and not only that, but it didn’t feel like … it was just us two readers fighting against these hateful people outside.”
He adds, “It did create a sense of safety. I know for myself as a performer. And I did talk to some of the parents, and they felt safe, having that passage as well.”
For its part, the Calgary Public Library counsels non-engagement with the protestors who demonstrate at its locations. In an emailed statement to Xtra, Director of Visitor Experience Melissa Legacy says, “Ultimately, it is not our place to engage with protests of any kind.” For people considering joining a counter-protest, Legacy suggests, instead, that “a great way to support your local library is to learn how libraries are critical democratic places that protect freedom of expression and access to information.”
“Protesting or demonstrations of any kind are not allowed on [Calgary Public] Library property,” says Legacy. And that goes for counter-protests, too.
Indeed, even peaceful counter-protests have their fair share of hazards.
During a protest against vaccine mandates in Ottawa early last year, a counter-protest with an anticipated attendance of around 1,000 people was called off for safety reasons. In publicly advising people not to attend the counter-protest, experienced activists explained that participants in the main protest were likely looking for confrontation, and may have had ties to right-wing and white-supremacist movements. All this made counter-protesting the occupying truckers especially dangerous.
In general, however, “counter-protests are extremely effective and necessary,” Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, tells Xtra. “Over the past several years we have seen that when far-right protests are counter-protested and outnumbered that there tends to be less violence and the far-right activists tend to come out in smaller numbers next time.”
Balgord says that a strong counter-protest presence can show the true colours of these protests.
“It discourages their softer supporters, and only their most hard-core elements keep coming out. And those most hardline elements are less careful and can’t help but show their true, hateful colours—which gets all sorts of people upset and want[ing] to help stop them,” he says.
The lesson for LGBTQ2S+ organizers is to know our opponents before planning a counter-protest, and to manage risks appropriately. It is not always safe or sensible to demonstrate against a hateful group. And if LGBTQ2S+ activists decide to go ahead with a counter-protest anyway, they should be clear with members of our community about what risks are involved with participating.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines the right to protest in Canada’s constitutional law. Section 2(c) guarantees to everyone the “freedom of peaceful assembly.”
The government of Canada describes this on their website as the “the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations, protests, parades, meetings, picketing and other assemblies.”
But this right doesn’t mean counter-protests are without their legal risks. Indeed, a number of provinces and municipalities have enacted laws designed to penalize protests, including counter-protests.
The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act prohibits people from “wilfully obstruct[ing], interrupt[ing] or interfer[ing] with the … use or operation of any essential infrastructure in a manner that renders the essential infrastructure dangerous, useless, inoperative or ineffective.”
Essential infrastructure is defined broadly to include sidewalks, highways and hospitals. The penalties for violating the prohibition are severe, and include fines of up to $10,000 for a first offence and imprisonment for up to six months for a subsequent offence.
Legal scholars Jennifer Koshan, Lisa Silver and Jonnette Watson Hamilton have noted in a post for the legal blog ABlawg that the act makes a number of recent protests illegal. These include a Black Lives Matter protest in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, a labour rally outside a meat-packing plant to protest the racialized and gendered dimensions of the province’s COVID-19 measures and a sit-in organized by LGBTQ2S+ activists at the Alberta provincial legislature to protest the removal of the Pride flag one day into Pride Month.
The Keeping Ontario Open for Business Act is aimed at protests that disrupt international trade, such as the border-crossing protests that rocked Canada during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The act prohibits people from “imped[ing] access to…, or the ordinary use of” transportation infrastructure that facilitates trade with the U.S. and elsewhere. Penalties for a first violation of this prohibition include fines of up to $100,000 and imprisonment for up to a year.
Although Ontario’s anti-protest legislation has a more limited scope than Alberta’s, critics say it is still too broad. Last year, legal activists Moya Teklu, Cara Zwibel and Fred Hahn noted in an op-ed published in the Hamilton Spectator that the Keeping Ontario Open for Business Act “could do little more than stamp out and criminalize many labour actions, like strikes and picket lines, and critically important demonstrations on issues including racial justice and meaningful climate action.” The point of a strike or protest is to be disruptive, after all, and the act makes such disruption illegal.
There is little evidence to date about how either piece of legislation will be applied in practice. The Alberta government notably refrained from using the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act to break up the border protests at Coutts, Alberta—in the end, only one charge was laid under the act. But the legislation is more likely to be enforced against marginalized groups like members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. As Koshan, Silver and Hamilton observed in their ABlawg post, the “members of [marginalized] groups will likely face arrest and prosecution disproportionately under” the act, if only because the members of such groups tend to be among the most frequent demonstrators against government and corporate interests.
That would also seem to be the case for Calgary’s excessive noise bylaw. In February, two teenagers were ticketed under the bylaw for participating in a counter-protest against anti-drag demonstrators. While the charges were eventually dropped, the fact that they were given out at all should put LGBTQ2S+ counter-protestors on notice: law enforcement might well use its powers to penalize them.
None of this is meant to discourage LGBTQ2S+ people and their allies from participating in counter-protests. But it should inspire some soul-searching about where, when and, most important, how queer activists show up to combat the rising tide of hateful activism.
LGBTQ2S+ people inhabit a world that is deeply hostile to their rights and, indeed, their existence. Queer activists cannot expect that to change when they try to exercise their right to counter-protest.
The question, then, is how the LGBTQ2S+ community can promote safety at its demonstrations without sacrificing its collective effectiveness.
Elizabeth Simons, deputy director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, offers four tips on how to counter-protest safely.
“First and foremost, try to not go alone. Using a buddy system allows you to stay safer, check in with each other and have a support system if needed. Show up together, stay together and leave together.”
Second, wear a mask, both to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, as well as to obscure your face from cameras. “It’s not uncommon to see people who attend counter-protests or demonstrations who aren’t masked be identified on social media by the far-right,” Simons says, “and this can be avoided to the best of folks’ abilities. Some folks may want to be a visible presence, and that’s another valid choice, but it should be made consciously and with intention.”
Third, make a decision before you show up about how you want to show up. As Simons explains, “Some folks choose to be at the front, carrying banners or flags, while some prefer to be present, but in the background. These environments can be heated, and potentially triggering. Knowing your limits will help you make safe, intentional choices.”
Finally, she says, “Avoid becoming content.” Far-right livestreamers often attend protests in order to “provoke people into confrontations, and [to] use those confrontations—selectively edited or misrepresented—as content,” Simons said. One such content producer, Chris Elston, used exactly this tactic at a Vancouver trans-rights protest in early April.
“This often results in the subjects becoming targets. Try to avoid engaging with them, and if you do, be informed of those risks.”
There is an important role for allies in LGBTQ2S+ counter-protests, too.
Visible expressions of hate, such as the ones LGBTQ2S+ people are counter-protesting, take an incredible toll on members of our community, if for no other reason than because they are public rejections of our personhood. Effective allies are those who combat this harm in two ways. First, by literally placing themselves in between LGBTQ2S+ counter-protestors and those who wish us harm, be they anti-queer demonstrators or the police. Second, by doing the care work of checking in on LGBTQ2S+ people ourselves and helping us cope with the stresses of blatant queer and transphobia.
In the end, of course, LGBTQ2S+ counter-protests are not about our allies, nor even about the people we are demonstrating against. They are about LGBTQ2S+ people ourselves: our community, our rights, our voice. And that is why counter-protests can be so effective: because we are.