3 min

Hearts and minds

I never learned to drive and often take cabs, especially since I moved to Ottawa. Public transit is great, and in the few instances that I need to show up more promptly, a cab is still cheaper than car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance.  
As the director of Jer’s Vision, my time is split between management and programming. A recent day leaned toward programming, and after a morning of volunteer orientations and emails, I spoke to a class at Algonquin College. After class, I jumped into a cab to speak at Encounters with Canada, a program that brings 150 teens from across Canada to Ottawa’s Terry Fox Youth Centre for a week of Canadiana. I was honoured to speak about my experiences of bullying and homophobia and what youth can do to make their schools and communities better.
Encounters with Canada provided a taxi chit to go to and from the centre. After I spoke,I shared a cab with other Jer’s Vision volunteers. We debriefed about the workshop and the students’ responses.
The taxi driver periodically interrupted to ask random questions and then abruptly asked, “So, you are gay?”
We then decided to discuss just the bullying aspect of our work. After that, the driver interjected only a couple more times and also cursed other drivers.
When we arrived at our destination, the volunteers got out of the car, and I filled out the taxi chit form. As I did, the driver inquired, “So, how long have you been gay?”
“My whole life,” I replied, hoping to satisfy his curiosity.
“What do you think Jesus would say?” he continued.
“Well, as a Catholic, I am sure he would respond lovingly,” I replied.
He stared at me and began to raise his voice. His breath smelled of alcohol. “You know it’s a sin, a disgrace really.”
His voice changed again, became threatening: “You are disgusting. You are going to go to hell, and I am gonna make sure you get there, faggot.”
Feeling afraid, I got my stuff, said, “I don’t need to listen to this,” and exited the cab, taxi chit still in hand.
When I met up with the volunteers on the sidewalk, I realized he was following. He approached us, demanding his payment. In an effort to stand up for myself I refused, thinking he would just leave.
He then grabbed my hand and pulled me toward him. I thought he was going to strike me. I pulled away and began to call the police. The dispatcher responded right away and said help was on its way. The dispatcher said I was not obliged to pay the cab driver and, if I did, he might leave before the police arrived. But when the driver approached again, I gave him the taxi chit, hoping to avoid further confrontation. He left, swearing.
Sitting over coffee, I realized his comments were more than disrespectful; they were threatening. For a moment I was afraid for my safety and that of my team. 
After returning home, I called the Ottawa police for advice. The officer on duty felt the situation was threatening enough to look at pressing charges and sent two officers to my home. The officers listened patiently and then recommended I call the complaints department at the taxi company. “It’s just a guy with ignorant opinions,” one officer said. “He’ll get a fine and it will hit him in his pocket book.”
As they left my home, I locked my door, feeling less safe. Having been the victim of a violent hate crime in the past, I find limited comfort in lodging “another complaint.” These pieces of paper, equal rights under the law, legislation changes — they are useless without the hearts and minds of people being on your side. The right to marry gives little comfort to a youth whose parent doesn’t love him because he is gay. What about a gay couple who are unsure if a cab driver will threaten them if they want to hold hands in the back seat?
With that in mind, I realized I don’t want this driver to be “hit in his pocket book.” I want him to understand it in his heart.
The battle for equal rights is no longer in the courts but in the hearts and minds of each of us.
I had thought to end this record here; however, as I saved this document, I noticed a new email from a youth I had spoken with at the Encounters with Canada program.

He writes, “I saw your presentation today, and I must admit that I am that kid who beats guys like you up and calls people ‘fags.’ But after your presentation today, I understand things differently. You are a real person. You deserve respect. Thank you for teaching me to be an ally. I plan to use your website to start a GSA at my school. Also, when I invite you to come speak at my school, I hope that you will allow me to introduce you.”