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BC elects its first lesbian MLA of colour

Mable Elmore sees her win as a 'collective achievement'

STANDING UP AGAINST A CULTURE OF HOMOPHOBIA. A culture of homophobia and discrimination 'is alive in Canadian culture, and that's regardless of ethnic community or background,' says Vancouver-Kensington's new NDP MLA Mable Elmore. Credit: Natasha Barsotti photos

“It feels terrific, I hadn’t realized,” says Mable Elmore, who became the first Filipina and lesbian of colour to take a seat in BC’s provincial legislature when she won the Vancouver-Kensington riding in the May 12 provincial election.

Elmore, who beat her Liberal rival Syrus Lee by 2,077 votes, quickly credits her success not only to her constituents but the queer community’s activism and advocacy.

“I see it as really a collective achievement,” she says.

A veteran of various socio-political movements where she has advocated for queer visibility — particularly in the students’ women’s, labour and peace movements — Elmore says from the inception of her campaign there was a lot of enthusiasm about having an official voice in the legislature that could help break down barriers.

“I think that it has to be made clear that the culture of homophobia, institutionalized heterosexism and systemic discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered is alive in Canadian culture and that’s regardless of ethnic community or background. I’m taking on those issues,” she asserts.

“One avenue of changing those perceptions is to speak out about that and against that when that happens,” she adds, noting that she has a history of doing just that in her union, the Canadian Auto Workers.

Elmore, who is on hiatus from her job as a bus driver, says she has facilitated courses about fighting homophobia in the workplace both in BC and Ontario as well as coordinated a cross-Canada program advocating for awareness of queer issues in the workplace.

“I’ve been privileged to actually witness change happening. It’s really incredible in workshops that were conducted, people just giving voice to the stereotypes they have held and having discussions about that,” she recalls. “People coming out of the workshops saying, ‘Wow, I have a different understanding’ and just hearing about people changing their views.

The result is more people coming out and feeling safer in CAW workplaces, Elmore says.

She says she’s “absolutely” ready to parlay that activism into her new role as a provincial legislator.

“I’ve said to my constituents and my supporters, my background is as a community activist, in helping people, and that’s what I’ll be carrying forward as an MLA,” she promises.

“I heard a lot on the doorsteps; issues around affordable housing, around accessible and affordable education at all levels, adequate funding for schools and for special needs children and public services. Those are some of the consistent themes I heard from constituents in Vancouver-Kensington that I’ll be working on,” Elmore elaborates.

Writer/actor Nelson Wong says he’s excited and encouraged by Elmore’s election.

He’s amazed it’s the first time a lesbian of colour has risen to that position but says it shows that “we’re ready now to keep moving forward with regard to having queer people of colour in larger positions within our city as a whole, not just the queer community, but also in such a diverse community as Kensington.”

Wong says he hopes Elmore’s political presence encourages people to get more involved and become more active in the community. He notes that as a person of colour from an immigrant background, he’s had to struggle with “those qualities of mine” in choosing a career in media.

To see somebody else who’s out and who comes from a similar background get that sort of acceptance and recognition, he says, will “definitely help people who have dismissed themselves because of their background or certain qualities that they thought might be distasteful to a larger population,” Wong adds.

As for the issues that he’d like Elmore to take on, Wong says tackling bullying in schools is a priority — “specifically education about queer identity and culture in schools.”

“There’s so much fear and ignorance that feeds into bullying and other serious problems,” he says, “that I think we can’t over-address it. That would be something she could bring forward for our community,” he stresses.

“School boards are elected municipally, and so I’d have to look into, in terms of jurisdiction, what the avenues of influence are from the provincial to the municipal level,” Elmore says when asked what the provincial government should do to ensure school boards don’t shy away from offering queer content in the provincial curriculum.

“I can’t give you a complete answer. I’m not sure what the appropriate measures are that can be taken,” she says.

On the issue of school codes of conduct prohibiting homophobic harassment in schools, Elmore says she expects the government to show leadership to ensure the codes abide by the BC Human Rights Code and that it’s made clear to school boards that that’s a priority.

Theatre director Berend McKenzie says Elmore’s victory is another attack on the proverbial glass ceiling.

“When a teacher asked me once what I wanted to be, I said as a kind of a joke I’d like to be prime minister, and she said, in her own way, that’s never going to happen,” recalls McKenzie, who is black and gay.

“Now I look at Mable and I look at Obama and I look at [new US Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia] Sotomayor and I look at Spencer Herbert and I look at these people who are going for it despite what society is saying they can’t do,” he says.

For McKenzie, the “yes, we can” movement has its own unstoppable momentum now.

“I think that just [Elmore’s] presence pushes us that bit further forward” and will make a difference, McKenzie offers.

“Let’s see what she does, let’s see what causes she takes up. It’s a voice and a face and a body that has not been seen before. It’s automatically going to impact what happens,” he maintains.