Canada must address rising hate toward LGBTQ2S+ people, say advocates

Act4QueerSafety is calling on the federal government to protect communities against an organized wave of bigotry

Queer and trans people today are living under a proliferating threat of violence, and it’s up to the Canadian government to do something about it.

That’s the primary message of Act4QueerSafety—an advocacy and awareness campaign launched today, May 11, aiming to sound the alarm over what community leaders say is a notable rise in the number of incidents involving anti-LGBTQ2s+ violence, threats and intimidation. 

“In my 10 years doing this work, I’ve never had queer and trans organizations—especially small community organizations—as worried about the hate they’re seeing,” says Fae Johnstone, one of Act4QueerSafety’s creators. The campaign is the first major initiative of Momentum, a just-launched LGBTQ2S+ justice-oriented organizing group of which Johnstone is president. 

“The federal government doesn’t currently understand the degree of crisis and of concern in our communities. They call themselves our best allies, so they need to show up if they want to stay true to that commitment,” she says. 

What Johnstone describes is backed up by both international and domestic data. The reported number of homophobic and transphobic violent incidents has been growing across Europe and the U.S.—but it’s not just an imported problem. In Canada, there was a 64 percent increase in hate-motivated violence targeting LGBTQ2S+ people between 2020 and 2021, according to the most available police reports.

“Yes, there is a role that America and American far-right figureheads are playing in this, but they’re not the ones showing up protesting at libraries, schools and inclusive events in Canada,” says Johnstone. “It’s homegrown too, and we need to manage that part of the problem.”

Much of the recent vitriol directed toward queer people, or at least the media coverage of it, has been focused on two primary targets. First, queer bars—with prominent and tragic examples of when gunmen attacked bars in Colorado Springs, U.S., and Oslo, Norway, within months of each other last year. 

 

Another highly-publicized target: drag artists—specifically drag storytime events where drag queens or kings read books to audiences, often children. In 2022, there were over 120 real or threatened incidents of violence at American drag events, many of them storytime events.

Yet the frequency and ferocity of opposition to these events has grown even greater these past few months. In 2023 alone, protestors have attempted to get drag storytime events cancelled or poorly attended in nearly every province, including British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, P.E.I. and New Brunswick. Still, Johnstone cautions people against isolating the threat too narrowly on storytime events. 

Trans people and drag artists are just the convenient targets at this moment. These same people were against marriage equality, they were against banning conversion therapy, they were against adoption for gay people

Concerns over drag artists “grooming” or indoctrinating their younger audience members is a tactic of a broader offensive, they say. “Their agenda is to roll back progress on queer and trans inclusion writ large. Trans people and drag artists are just the convenient targets at this moment. These same people were against marriage equality, they were against banning conversion therapy, they were against adoption for gay people. This is the same struggle and we need everyone to recognize that.”

What are governments currently doing? At the provincial level, elected leaders are cutting both ways on the issue. Ontario’s NDP, for instance, are pushing forward a bill that would designate 100-metre safety zones around venues hosting drag and LGBTQ2S+ events—protecting them from harassment and intimidation. Meanwhile, Quebec’s Conservatives launched a petition demanding public funds not be used to promote drag storytimes and that parents must first give specific consent before their children attend one.

Johnstone and Act4QueerSafety are hoping the federal government can step in to take national action on the issue. Their demands range from the symbolic, such as continued public condemnations of anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate, to the practical—including appointing representatives to tackle this hate in Canada and abroad, as well as funding endeavours to combat misinformation and address safety concerns). Act4QueerSafety hopes to accomplish these aims through petitions, letter-writing campaigns, social media advocacy and events throughout the summer.

A major challenge the federal government will have to contend with is responding to not only in-person instances of violence, but also online efforts to threaten and intimidate queer and trans people.

Just a few weeks ago Johnstone herself was the target of a massive outpouring of online hate and threats (amplified by conservative or right-wing influencers and pundits) following her inclusion—as a trans woman—in a Hershey’s Canada International Women’s Day campaign. 

Though Johnstone says Act4QueerSafety was already deep into development when this occurred throughout March and April, it added a high-profile example to a problem she and other queer and trans people were already observing: hate and bigotry toward the LGBTQ2S+ community is becoming more explicit, emboldened and organized.

Johnstone, for example, compares the opposition she witnessed during the fight around protections for trans people in 2016–2017 and the more recent legislative battle around banning conversion therapy in 2021.

“Between then and the conversion therapy ban, you could feel that the right was more mobilized and organized,” she says. “The narrative of Canada’s inclusivity has allowed us to ignore the growing problem that is far-right extremism.”

Though Act4QueerSafety comes with a specific set of demands for the federal government, Johnstone says the ultimate vision is far greater than that.

“Our end goal is a world where all queer and trans people live free of harassment and hate. Where we can exist safely in our communities and don’t have to look over our shoulder.”

Kevin Hurren

Kevin Hurren is an experienced writer and political campaigner, having advised some of the nation’s most senior government leaders. He writes often on building more equitable cities and systems.

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