Harold Desmarais has been fighting for queer rights in Canada since 1972. He grew up in Canada during a time when being openly gay could cost you your job or even your apartment. He’s lived to see sexual orientation included in the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Human Rights Act, and victories on same-sex spousal benefits, adoption, survivor’s pension benefits and marriage.
But now Desmarais is worried about the future of queer activism. “I share that concern together with some other senior gay activists I know,” he says. “Older activists are burning out and dying off…. Things are much better now but rights can be taken away. We have to be vigilant and both ready and willing to fight back when the need arises to protect what we have.”
Today’s queer youth in Toronto are growing up in a world with openly gay celebrities and access to local programs and services like the Triangle Program, Supporting Our Youth and the Pride Prom. Has growing up with these rights and services left them less likely to carry on the fight?
“Perhaps some youth are taking these rights for granted,” says 21-year-old Michelle Le-Claire, but certainly not all. “I can say as facilitator of Trans Youth Toronto at The 519 that most of my youth want to get into the field of social work… are very passionate about human rights.”
Le-Claire, executive commissioner of advocacy and equity at George Brown and the LGBT students Ontario commission for the Canadian Federation of Students, believes the key to creating tomorrow’s activists is to pass on community history to today’s youth.
“It’s the history piece that needs to be understood,” she says. “Look at Pride as an event. How much has Pride changed from activism to drunken parties?”
Le-Claire echoes Desmarais’ call for vigilance to protect the gains of past victories. “I think that youth need to consider what it is that we need to do in order to uphold these rights.”
In 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign promise to hold a free vote and revisit the issue of same-sex marriage angered many Canadian homos. Parliament did vote to uphold the right but elsewhere queers have not been so successful. Last November saw the passage of California’s Proposition 8 and with it the revocation of same-sex marriage rights in that state. Have these proceedings inspired Canada’s queer youth to mobilize?
Athena Lam thinks this is a possibility. Preferring the label advocate to activist, the 19-year-old student is exec at large of Lesbians Gays Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto and president of Rainbow Trinity.
“Youth these days are generally not as active as say the Stonewall days,” says Lam. “[But] if you threaten their sense of entitlement… I think it will inspire people to move.
“I think it really requires certain leaders because I find with movements you need someone who has that energy to get people going.”
One such queer youth leader is Kat Yerro. The 19-year-old is a student in the Triangle Program, a queer-focused high school classroom, and organizer of Toronto’s protest against the approval of the anti-same-sex marriage amendments south of the border.
“I first heard about people starting to protest while watching The Ellen DeGeneres show and wished I could have been in California to participate,” says Yerro. “A few days later I read an article on the rallies on AfterEllen.com and immediately went to the Join the Impact website to check out what was happening for Toronto.”
After finding Toronto’s plans for a protest against the amendments in a state of disarray Yerro stepped up, organizing a demonstration on Nov 15 that saw more than 200 show up at the US Consulate. Youth attendance at the rally far surpassed participants over the age of 50 — no surprise to Yerro.
“As youth begin to feel empowered themselves and get easier access to information about the fight for gay rights we’ll see an increase in those participating,” she says. “With enough education it’ll be ridiculous that gay marriage and adoption were ever voted over. I’m just hoping to help move things along and I try not to see age as a factor in that. Little things do big things, just do what you can.”
Egale Canada’s executive director Helen Kennedy, who was at the Nov 15 rally, says she has faith that a younger generation of activists will carry on what previous generations began.
“I’m very optimistic about the younger generation,” says Kennedy. “There’s been a steady growth. The Marc Hall campaign [in which a student won the right to bring his same-sex date to the prom at his Catholic high school]… the age of consent bill… it peaks and ebbs depending on the issue but I find that queer youth in general are very engaged and very educated on the issues and are politically aware and astute.”
Kennedy says Egale has been reaching out to young people and trying to motivate them to become more involved.
“We have quite a few young people who come into Egale during the week,” she says. “We’d like more. It would be fantastic to have more involvement of youth.”
Kennedy says she’s hoping to engage younger queers through Egale’s Safe Schools Campaign and with the upcoming release of a youth-orientated website.
“When we launched the Safe School Survey we wanted to do something to try to help youth in schools to mobilize and to become active and to set up gay/straight alliances…. [The website] will have chat rooms and blogs, international information, current news… it is a multifaceted queer youth- and ally-focused website.” Egale plans to launch the site in early 2009.
By sharing resources, networks and experiences queer activists young and old could maximize their impact as they attempt to shape the future of our community.
“The one thing that we should be doing as a community is honouring our older queer activists and generating that sense of history among the younger queer activists,” says Kennedy.
But she points out that respect goes both ways. “I’m learning every day from younger people who come into our office and volunteer.”
Kennedy’s message to would-be activists? “One person can make a huge difference. If you’re motivated and you’re passionate about an issue then do something about it.”