A Final Word on Pride 2020
Pride Month 2020 in the Borderland region is in the history books, and the ink now dry on another chapter in a year defined as much by the challenges which keep us apart, as by new causes that bring us together.
At the outset of the pandemic, it was apparent that regular summer events would have to adapt, or adjourn. But for Pride, cancellation comes with a cost. We have learned since we started this journey in 2017 that Pride is essential to the wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable and isolated citizens – and specifically, for young people who feel, through Pride, that they can safely exist here, often for the very first time.
Likewise, if COVID-19 has given new meaning to isolation for some of us, it has compounded the existing isolation of queer and trans people in small communities and rural settings. It was with that in mind that we launched our #PrideLivesHere campaign and developed initiatives to spread a visible message of support and solidarity, during a time of literal distancing.
Pride has always been a protest
What we did not plan for was that this year Pride would attract so much controversy.
The controversy followed the failure of 3 elected officials in Emo to see the need for even symbolic support for LGBTQ2 people in their community. This set off an online barrage of hate, and a steady stream of vandalism and threats to individuals and businesses who dared signal their support of LGBTQ2 people. It also mobilized allies, and those who might otherwise have kept to themselves during a uniquely solitary Pride season.
To be sure, controversy is something Borderland Pride tried to avoid in the early days of our movement, even in the face of some outright bigotry. But after 3 years, it has become apparent that in order to effectively thwart homophobia, and to assert the rightful, equitable place of queer and trans people, Pride would need to be a more forceful advocate. Meetings of Emo’s town council on May 12 and 26 were living proof that “winning flies with honey” (nevermind law and facts) only gets you so far. History also teaches us that no equity-seeking group has secured any basic recognition without causing some public debate or making a little noise.
Indeed, protest is the heritage of Pride. The first Pride marches around the world were political demonstrations to demand better from governments and law enforcement – not unlike the social uprising against systemic racism that we are seeing unfold today across the United States and around the world. Our “Emo Ambush” was a colourful and peaceful salute to this history – and a long-overdue signal that LGBTQ2 people won’t be forsaken by backwards institutions and elected leaders. The story of our small-town protest made headlines across Canada and beyond – asserting, loudly, that Pride lives here, even in the small corners of Northwestern Ontario.
A controversial Pride Month has tested some commitments to our cause, and separated the true allies from the bandwagoners, whose support was always conditional. As I stated in Emo, true allies don’t shy away simply because Pride has given local names to homophobia, true allies don’t avoid flying a rainbow flag because they support queer people, but “don’t want to get involved”, and true allies are more worried about the safety of LGBTQ2 kids than the feelings and comfort of their straight, white neighbours who don’t think Pride is necessary.
Pride isn’t just a colourful frivolity or a chance for straight people to find a gay best friend to play out their Will & Grace routine. Pride has a serious meaning, and is about standing for social progress. The key moments in that progress have often been forged through conflict, which is a healthy part of civic life.
Locally, not everyone has agreed with the approach Borderland Pride has taken, but it is 2020, and LGBTQ2 people shouldn’t have to wait while our neighbours slowly contemplate our humanity, especially when Canadian law and public policy have been clear for decades.
Pride has also been personal
Pride has taken a personal toll this year too. It has tested the mettle of my leadership in new ways, and caused me to question the intersection of identity and politics. While I am no stranger to threats, harassment, or even insinuations of violence, this year has unleashed a torrent of rebuke. Much of this has come from people who should know better, and whose performance has been met with shocking approval from wide swaths of the community.
That has been disheartening, to say the least. Perhaps understandably, it has also evoked some firm and terse responses, for which I have faced criticism. This past week alone, I have received several messages from constituents (and some anonymous mail) objecting to the strong stance I have taken against homophobia in our community.
The wording of these letters varies, but the theme is always the same: that my response to homophobia is “beneath that of a municipal councillor”, is “unprofessional for a lawyer”, or that I am “bullying” by raising a legitimate question of discrimination in a legal forum. These complainants say that they didn’t vote for me to be an advocate on these issues and that maybe if I was “nicer” to bigots, there would be less homophobia in our community. They implore me to engage in more “dialogue” or “education” on these issues with these other, patently hateful people.
I take my professional and municipal duties very seriously, and for that same reason, I reject the entire premise of this “feedback”, none of which is attuned to its own homophobic presumptions. As a lawyer, I owe no civility to bigots. I am retained to fight for my clients and their interests, and I wouldn’t be very good at that job if I wasn’t able to do the same for myself or the other causes for which I am enlisted.
As a councillor, I am not the spokesperson for the Town of Fort Frances, but merely a political representative, tasked with voicing community interests on the governing body of the municipality. If it isn’t obvious enough that inclusion is a community interest, the Supreme Court of Canada has actually explicitly stated that human rights and equality are values governmental actors should promote and protect. Both my resume and my platform at election time reflected a sincere and well-documented commitment to these values. It was not a secret, nor is it at odds with providing effective community representation. If anyone sees it otherwise, I don’t need their vote.
On reflection, it seems that I am merely guilty of the sin of being a queer politician who actually visibly champions LGBTQ2 issues. Notably, no one has ever had the same breathless concerns about my tenacity when I have used any of my other leadership roles to seek resources or recognition for our community, to challenge other levels of government or corporations, or to support groups in need. Not once has this happened in response to my work as president of the law association, not once as a director on the regional hospital board, not once as vice-chair of the legal clinic, and not once as counsel to any of the organizations I serve in my practice. It is abundantly clear that it is only when I give voice to LGBTQ2 people – as a queer person – that I attract this condemnation. This tells me all I need to know about the origins of this disdain.
The tone policing of my critics has been both relentless and shameless, but also meritless. I don’t know how many times I can say this: exposing bigotry is not worse than bigotry itself. I firmly refuse to back down for giving local names and faces to the disgusting comments which have been directed at Pride and local queer and trans people. If the perpetrators wanted to turn the page on their reputational damage, they would apologize, but none have. Instead, some have engaged in threats and abuse, using their homophobic remarks as a soapbox.
Likewise, it isn’t my job to coddle bigots. In fact, it is no longer the responsibility of any equity-seeking person to confront hatred with a lesson plan. “Education” and “dialogue” only carry us so far on the road to inclusion, and there is simply no one out there at this point in Canadian history whose aversion to LGBTQ2 people is rooted in good faith. The expectation that queer, racialized, or other marginalized people should continually have to meet their oppressors halfway on their own basic dignities is completely out-of-step with the time we find ourselves in. I won’t pretend otherwise.
Suffice to say that Pride 2020 has been fraught with tension on many levels. I may continue to pay that personal or political price for my role in creating it, but the product is of long-term value. It has opened up overdue discussions that propel us forward, and serve a greater good.
I am committed to that progress, just as much as I am to our district and its future. That future includes a place for Pride, and I am going to keep doing the work to get us there.
I am proud of that, and I am not going to apologize.
Douglas W. Judson