How can we create inclusivity and equality?

By JoAnne Formanek Gustafson

Over the past few weeks tension has built across the district following Emo’s refusal to acknowledge Pride month in the same manner as the surrounding communities. Without rehashing all the events, it seems like a good time to consider how do we move forward in ways that unite us rather than divide our communities? To answer this question we can start by looking at Canada’s history of discrimination toward the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2S+) community. Defining the concept of equity and how this contributes toward righting wrongs is important. Community members need to take ownership for what this looks like, how we use this to examine our own behaviors and attitudes, and then make decisions about how to move forward.

Canada has an undeniable history of discrimination toward many people based on race, gender, gender expression, marital status, physical and mental (dis)ability, and sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in Canada with the passing of Bill C-150; then-Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada, Pierre Trudeau famously commented, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” And finally, in 1986 sexual orientation was added to the Ontario Human Rights Code as a prohibited ground for discrimination. Like most other human rights acts in Canada, this act prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, services and certain other activities in the public and private sectors.

What does this mean for communities? I would suggest that the absolute minimum standard for us should be tolerance. The online dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, beliefs, practices, racial or ethnic origins, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” Being “fair” and “objective” would suggest that you acknowledge that perspectives other than your own exist, and objectivity asks you to separate your own emotional responses from your attitude. This should, ideally, help to reduce acts of bigotry. This sounds like a fair minimum standard that will allow us to show respect for human dignity, behave in ways that do not cause harm to others, and allow all to feel a sense of inclusion in their community. Is this what we’re seeing in the ways that people are treating one another in discussions about LGBTQ2S+ inclusion and recognition as community members? To consider this, some discussion of equity is important.

The concept of ‘equity’ has specific meaning in the discussion of individual rights in society. Equity means that a group (or individual) is provided what is needed to meet their needs. Equity seeking groups such as Pride, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and Idle No More (to name a few) exist to actively seek social justice and reparation for people who are faced with barriers to equal access, opportunities and resources due to disadvantage and discrimination. Across Canada and in many parts of the world, Pride seeks to have the flag flown in communities to build a feeling of acceptance in the community including recognition for every person’s right to dignity and safety regardless of sexual identity. Again, like tolerance, dignity and safety should be a minimum standard.

Some perspectives suggest that equity is “unfair” to the straight community. Once example is why is there no ‘straight flag’? The answer lies in this: the straight community doesn’t face barriers to inclusion because they are straight, so they don’t need a flag. It’s as though every day is ‘straight pride’ day. The same concept of seeking equity applies to National Indigenous History Month, Black History Month, and Asian Heritage Month; these communities have faced barriers to inclusion while the “white” community has not. The goal of equity is to build a society where people aren’t discriminated against for any of the prohibited grounds found in Ontario’s Human Rights Code, which are: age, ancestry, colour, race, citizenship, ethnic origin, place of origin, creed, disability, family status, marital status, gender identity, gender expression, receipt of public assistance, sex, sexual orientation, or record of offences. Dignity should be for everyone.

How can we build the inclusive society that’s needed to keep all people in our communities safe? This is the question we must ask ourselves, and that each of us must answer. Is it reasonable to expect all people to be the same? History has some lessons. For example, in World War II, six million people were murdered by Hitler’s Nazis in an effort to develop a “pure” society. These people were singled out based on age, race, (dis)ability, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. Also historic are the data about LGBTQ2S+ youth suicide attempts and deaths from suicide, which are much higher than is found in the straight population. It’s even more tragic that these numbers rise sharply in situations where young people are rejected by family and community. Think about that; are you willing to gamble with the lives of a loved one? A neighbourhood child, a niece or nephew, a son or daughter, a sister, a brother, a friend? Clearly, rejecting people for being different is not the answer. The key question is this: what can you do to stop this from happening?

An oft-quoted bit of wisdom is that each of us has power to change just one person: ourselves. Educate yourself about the issues LGBTQ2S+ face. Put yourself in the shoes of a person who feels the discrimination and isolation of rejection in their own community and use this to find empathy.

Emo has exposed a festering wound in our local communities. However, allies are standing up to show that the LGBTQ2S+ community can count on their support. You can join this positive work by doing your own soul-searching and education work to inspire others who are still unsure. Will this be hard work? Yes. Will it be worth it? Definitely.