3 min

Fresh face, old fight

Are youth unprepared to re-hash historic battles?

I wish I could have been there. In two places, in two decades, actually.

Picture this: it’s May 11, 1970, and a group of feminists have made the uncharacteristic decision to wear gloves and don handbags. In the days before metal detectors, they carry chains and locks in their purses, and quietly slip into the viewing gallery of the House of Commons.

When the government denies an NDP MP’s demand to debate the abortion law, dozens of women shackle themselves to their chairs. They make speeches about the need for safe and legal abortion. The women, many of them fresh off of a cross-country consciousness-raising Abortion Caravan, shut down the House of Commons for the first time in its 103-history, and they put the issue on the map — this time from women’s perspectives.

Eleven years later, gay and lesbian activists pull the same stunt in the Ontario legislature. Enraged that politicians refused to include sexual orientation in the provincial human rights code, they too chain themselves to their seats, putting the government on notice that they weren’t going anywhere.

As dramatic as those two actions were, they didn’t lead to instant change. It took 18 more years for abortion to be completely decriminalized, and five more years for Ontario to adopt human rights protections for gays and lesbians. But all of the legal challenges that led to these two victories on behalf of women and queer people were bolstered by creative, grassroots actions organized by veteran activists who were prepared to commit for the long haul.

Decades later, a new generation of queer and feminist activists is poised to take on political territory that is no less challenging. A federal election is imminent, with the Harper government within breathing distance of a majority. We can only imagine what havoc a majority Conservative government could create, given how much they’ve been able to destroy under a minority mandate.

We’re not just talking about the loss of valuable programs like universal daycare, Court Challenges and the advocacy mandate of Status of Women Canada. We are seeing the rapid adoption of new laws that criminalize teen sexuality, impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and censor Canadian film productions. And if Ken Epp’s Bill C-484 makes it out of committee hearings alive, it could pose the most significant threat to women’s reproductive freedom in over 20 years.

The good news is that young people see the impending threats, and are prepared to act on them. But the problem is that many of us have not had to work on these issues in our lifetime, and some feel ill-equipped to pick up the mantle from the second wave and gay liberation generation. In some cases, young activists are choosing to shut down debate, rather than engage in it. And this does not bode well for our ability to push back against the erosion of the rights that our parents’ generation fought so hard for.

At both Carleton and York University, student politicians recently discussed banning or yanking funds away from anti-choice groups that tried to organize events on campus. While I am sure the students were well-intentioned, the fact that they chose to censor a debate, rather than work hard to win it with better facts and more persuasive arguments, signals that we need some intergenerational information sharing — pronto.

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a dyke in her mid-50s at last year’s Lesbian and Gay Expo in Ottawa. She dropped by the table I was volunteering at, and recounted some stories about lesbian dances that she used to organize. She talked about how they would always end with a particular Cris Williamson song that would serve as a call to action at the end of the night. She asked me if I’d heard it before. When I said I hadn’t, she muttered something about how the kids these days don’t give a shit about our queer history.

I left that conversation highly annoyed, because it was quite indicative of the derision that many young activists feel from older people. The notion that youth are more apathetic than in previous generations is just not true. And unlike family or cultural history which is passed on quite readily through the generations, political history is something that we all have to work hard to dig up and claim as our own.

Still, this shouldn’t be a one-sided exchange. Many of the younger queers I know are quick to criticize second-wavers for good reason, specifically liberal feminists’ missteps on issues such as pornography, censorship and trans inclusion.

Younger queers might not be able to pull talking points out of their ass about access to abortion, but they can easily rhyme off pointed arguments about the problems with Canada’s national security legislation, the need for gender-neutral bathrooms, and the problems with discriminatory age of consent laws. They know how to use social networking sites like Facebook to mobilize hundreds of people in a matter of minutes, and can turn protests into street parties led by radical cheerleaders.

Many of the people who fought the battles 30 years ago have largely moved on to other things, and they justifiably deserve to enjoy their retirement. But those of us who are trying to uphold their legacy have a few questions. It’s time for the conversation to begin.