May. 06, 2009 - Issue #707: Designated Grey Wall
Three steps back
Something strange is happening in Alberta. Following the announcement a
couple months back that the provincial government was headed in the right
direction for queer rights, things took a turn for the worse; a positive
declaration has been followed by a negative one. And another bad one. And
another. As the attacks keep piling up, queers in Alberta are starting to
wonder why in 2009 our province seems to be headed in exactly the wrong
Lindsay Blackett, Alberta minister of culture and community spirit, announced in March that Alberta would be adding sexual orientation to its list of human rights protected from discrimination. For Alberta's older generation the reaction was bittersweet, more of an "Oh, finally" than anything. Younger ones reacted with happiness or mild apathy. But the scary thing was how many people were shouting from the rooftops "Oh my god, how progressive!"
Progressive? After the government had fought and buried and avoided this federally sanctioned issue for 11 years? There was acclaim from gays and straights alike that the PCs were actually doing something new and wholly of their own accord. No thanks to the countless activists who've lobbied for the change since Vriend, and even before.
Keeping in mind that sexual orientation has already been read in to the Human Rights Act for a decade, it's important to remember that nothing has really changed. If the province really did want to do something progressive for LGBTQ Albertans there is a very obvious addition they could have made. Gender identity is not explicitly stated in the act and there's no mention of gender expression and while transgender people are covered under the gender section, this has a limited scope.
So while sexuality and gender variance are protected, it's easy to see that someone could be victimized through the backdoor of gender identity and expression. There's no protection for clothing or mannerisms and all the other ways that gender can be displayed. The employer can say he didn't fire the transman because he was trans, but because he was wearing a suit. The landlord will tell you he didn't kick out the lesbians for being gay, but simply because they were just so butch and masculine that it was putting off other tenants. Real progress would have been new protections, not symbolically adding one we've had for a decade.
Still, it's better than nothing. Or it was, until the new attacks started rolling in. And those attacks came straight from the provincial government. Vue Weekly has already covered the gender reassignment surgery cuts extensively and I won't get into them, but I will say that the last month has been interesting as the community rallies in support, some of it from unlikely places. Take, for example, the Bear's Yukon "Big Yap" Jack, who took the ultimate typical-straight-guy approach to explaining the necessity of GRS coverage on the typically homo- and transphobic radio station. It's easy to assume that he changed a few minds. I've also seen a lot of warmth come from the people that I associate with, who've all been a little bit better informed and more understanding of transpeople than I ever expected.
If there's one thing the cuts have made me realize it's that the average Albertan is actually a lot more supportive of the trans community than I'd thought. It's unfortunate that its biggest enemy appears to be the Alberta government itself.
Then came Bill 44, which introduces the new changes to the Human Rights Act. Along with sexual orientation and no gender expression came a "parental rights" section, stating that parents and guardians have the right to remove their children from "courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials or instruction or exercises" that "include subject matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation."
To a certain extent this has always been the case in Alberta, but this showy addition seems to be included specifically to placate people who are upset about the changes to sexual orientation in the legislation. Loudly telling parents they can pull their kids out of anything related to gay issues is like giving carte blanche to instilling their children with homophobia, and getting the government's help in doing it.
What the new bill also demands is that any course of instruction that covers any of the three areas of religion, sexuality and sexual orientation must send a letter home beforehand to inform parents that the topic will be discussed. This has many people wondering what will happen if the issue spontaneously comes up in class. Will a teacher have to halt discussion until he or she can send adequate notice home? Or will they have to send out any kids from the class who have parents who have previously made it clear that their child is not to receive learning in these areas?
It's strange that these changes appear in the Human Rights Act instead of the School Act where they really belong. Perhaps that's what happens when you have your culture minister in charge of human rights. It's all very 1953.
It makes one wonder how we have a majority government so out of touch with the concerns of the average Albertan. I'm constantly surprised and impressed with the support for equality that exists, so I refuse to believe this is what most people in the province want. We can't let the government get away with their blatant PR move by distracting the gays so they can destroy trans people and instill homophobia into the school system. They handed over one concession and pulled out the rug in three new places. We're doing a disservice to the next generation if we are not loud and angry in our outrage. V
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