Holding on to hard-won rights

The fight for gay rights in North America has been incremental; at times its advancements dished out quite rapidly.

It’s a bit like the rise of Apple Inc: one generation remembers the original box-shaped Macintosh and then, in swift succession, the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. The brand is now ubiquitous and entrenched.

Similarly for gay rights, in a generation we’ve gone from Stonewall to 1 Girl 5 Gays. Somewhere in between fall the milestones, from kd lang to Queer as Folk. Same-sex marriage has been legalized, gay adoption normalized and gay-haters glitterized. It sometimes seems queers are also ubiquitous. We are surely entrenched.

The excitement of reaching so many new highs means we often forget the lows. Young guys like Paul “Dawn-of-a-new-gay” Aguirre-Livingston decide we’re home free. But like Apple Inc, queer activism has also seen hard times, and likely will again.

I left Canada in 2006, hoping, like many an eager activist before, to bring a dollop of Canadian progressiveness to other parts of the world. At the time I thought the queer fight in Canada was well on its way to a denouement.

I had begun my journalism career more than a decade ago at Winnipeg’s Swerve, a queer newspaper in a progressive city. Glen Murray was mayor and Will and Grace were the queens of prime time. Later, in Toronto, I covered the marriage of Michael Leshner and Michael Stark. I was out of the closet at work, had options like Steamworks for play and wrote openly about my homosexuality in local media.

Life was good and I needed to shake it up, so I set my sights on a new frontier where being gay was not so easy.

During the past six years I’ve worked in some of the world’s poorest, most dangerous places, in Africa and the Middle East. What these places lacked in wealth they made up for in character.

And despite unbridled and widespread homophobia, I met gay people in each place fighting for their rights. I danced with gay Sierra Leoneans to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” and marched with screaming drag queens in Cape Town Pride.

Sadly, I also covered the “corrective” rape of lesbians in Johannesburg, got back into the closet in Palestine and argued with violent zealots in Uganda.

When my husband and I decided to move back to Canada and I accepted a job at Xtra, I wondered if I could be as passionate about first-world queer problems as I was about life-and-death queer issues in the developing world.

The outrage over Aguirre-Livingston’s Grid article, the ongoing debate about which pronoun to use for trans people: is it ze, hir, they? — it all seemed less important than the murder of David Kato in Uganda.

But there’s a spectrum, a variety, and that’s what is so joyful about this community. And like Apple Inc, we know our collective fight, in a world of diverse and competing interests, is far from over.


“Rights are not abstractions,” wrote Michael Ignatieff in The Rights Revolution. “They are the very heart of our community and the very core of our values. We have them because those who went before us fought for them, and in some cases died for them… We owe it to them to maintain the vitality of the right to dissent, the right to belong, the right to be different.”

As I take up this new post, I am keeping these words close at hand. For although we have made great gains, we are faced with the possibility they can be stolen from under us. From Rob Ford to Stephen Harper to Ontario’s Catholic school boards, Canadian queers have many reasons to get back on the battlefield if, like me, they ever left it.

There is no reason we shouldn’t argue over pronouns, but we must also keep watch on larger issues, both in Canada and abroad. All these stories form part of the fabric of our community, and I plan to ensure they remain within the pages of this newspaper.

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

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