Bill Siksay rem-embers the night he became a gay activist. He was watching the late news while visiting his parents when he saw a story on a “homosexual murder.” His friend had just been stabbed to death.
“My friend was murdered in his apartment by, apparently, a man he had met at a bar,” Siksay recalls. “The police spokesperson’s response was that given homo-sexual lifestyles, this is to be expected.”
Sitting on a bench in Vancouver’s English Bay, green eyes fixed on the water, the rookie MP from Burnaby-Douglas still remembers the appalling injustice of the incident and its aftermath. How the Toronto newspaper headlines referred to it as the sixth or eighth “homosexual murder” of the year. How even Siksay’s own parents – who knew his friend – responded to the news of his murder by asking why “those people behave that way.”
Though he had been out to friends for a number of years prior to the incident, the series of events surrounding his friend’s brutal murder made it impossible for Siksay – then a Protestant seminary student – to remain uninvolved.
“I couldn’t sit here and be quiet in the face of that kind of stuff,” he says.
While the shift from seminary school to gay activism and politics felt like a natural move, Siksay never dreamed that he would eventually become one of the few openly gay Members Of Parliament in Canada.
But 18 years of political work later, he is – and he’s not alone.
Libby Davies blushes and clears her throat, trying to find the right words to talk about how she now identifies as a lesbian. It still feels new to her, she says, but she’s getting there and, yes, she is a lesbian. Her hesitation comes from her feeling that while her sexual identity is important, it is just one part of her self.
“I was worried that I would suddenly have my whole political identity shrunk down to one element, but I don’t think that’s happened,” says the NDP MP for Vancouver East as she sits at a round wooden table in a small coffee shop on the edge of Gastown.
“I have a long history of community activism, working on housing and human rights and poverty issues and a whole number of things.”
Holding her face in one hand she sighs and says, “I think I answered your question about identity – the lesbian thing – so badly.”
It’s the only time that she breaks from her passionate and steady way of speaking. About politics, she has the answers and speaks with conviction. About her sexual identity, there is room for pause.
But to call her a new gay activist is not correct. Her community activism and human rights agenda has had her speaking out in support of gay and lesbian issues for a long time. Only now, she says, she has enhanced her understanding by experiencing the coming-out process and the homophobia others face first hand.
Working together, Davies and Siksay recently tried to put together a Pink Caucus in Parliament.
They had hoped to launch the caucus on Valentine’s Day. The idea, Davies says, was to talk about the same-sex marriage bill in a personal way. “This is about people’s real lives. This is about the people they love, about who we want to live with,” she says.
But the Pink Caucus never got off the ground, since only three openly gay MPs were interested: Réal Ménard from the Bloc Québécois party, Davies and Siksay. “We invited other MPs known to be out but they declined,” says Siksay. (Liberal MPs Scott Brison, from Kings-Hants, NS, and Mario Silva, from Davenport, Ont, are both publicly out.)
Even without the support of a Pink Caucus, Siksay and Davies are still actively supporting the government’s same-sex marriage bill as it wends its way through vigorous Parliamentary debates right now. The bill recently passed second reading.
Siksay is acting as the NDP critic for the bill, a rare thing for a rookie MP. He says he is proud to be a gay man speaking for the rights of gay and lesbian couples in the House.
But what he really seems to have his heart set on is amending the Canadian Human Rights Act to specifically include transgendered rights. His goal is to add gender identity to the list of grounds officially protected from discrimination within federally regulated bodies.
While there is now some protection for transgendered and transsexual people in Canada, only some provincial human rights codes – which prohibit discrimination in the private sector – list gender identity; more often it “falls under” other categories, such as protections on the bases of sex or disability. This means trans rights are not guaranteed and, in fact, are inconsistent at best across the country.
The federal NDP made a campaign promise to address the issue of transgender rights, Siksay says. The party caucus discussed what it thought its priorities should be – human rights protection, guaranteed access to sexual reassignment surgery or recognizing sex changes on documentation such as passports. It decided to focus on amending the Canadian Human Rights Act as its first priority.
“The CHR Act can be read to include trans rights but there’s something to be said in making it explicit,” says Siksay. “I do have friends who are transgendered and know the difficulties they go through. It’s been driven home to me about how important this issue is.”
So far, the consultations have been great, he continues. Using funding from the House Of Commons budget, Siksay has travelled to a number of large Canadian cities to meet with people and discuss what they believe the legislative priorities should be for transgendered rights.
He is now drafting a private member’s bill on the subject and hopes to introduce it in the House before the next election.
“You introduce a [private member’s] bill to say to the government, ‘You should be doing this,'” he says.
Creating a private member’s bill is unusual for a rookie MP. Along with representing his constituents in the Burnaby-Douglas riding, and covering Citizenship And Immigration, the Canadian Human Rights Act and Western economic diversification for the NDP, there’s not a lot of time left over.
“As a new Member Of Parliament you have things flooding at you,” Siksay says, adding that he appreciates the support he gets from other MPs. “I am not the only gay or lesbian member in the House,” he notes.
Indeed he is not.
After 23 years in politics, Davies believes that being a proactive MP, instead of simply reacting, is extremely important.
“We are inundated with information, it’s like an information overload. To find the space to be proactive and figure out where you can actually make a difference is not easy,” she says.
Aside from the task of being NDP House Leader – which makes her the second female House Leader in the history of Canada – her biggest proactive project this year is finding a way to reform the prostitution laws in Canada.
“It’s an issue politicians don’t like to deal with because it’s portrayed as a moral issue,” says Davies.
But the reality is that the Criminal Code itself is harming sex workers, she continues.
Davies is particularly concerned about the risks sex trade workers face in the Downtown Eastside, an area that is part of her Vancouver East riding. The issue needs to be addressed, she repeats.
Last fall, she brought a motion to the House to do just that. The motion prompted the creation of a committee to look at this issue – and the Subcommittee On Solicitation Laws was born.
“How archaic these laws are,” says Davies. “Presumably they were created to protect society and to protect women. I think it’s failed on both counts.
“We are basically sentencing people to violence and sometimes death.”
The subcommittee, which reports to the House’s Justice Committee, travelled to Canada’s largest cities over the past few months.
Its five representatives -“me, Hedy Fry, the chair is John Maloney, a Bloc woman, and Art Hanger, a former cop from Calgary”- meet twice a week. In their travels, they heard from what Davies calls the whole gamut of perspectives: academics, interest groups, advocates, sex trade workers, municipal workers, prohibitionists and people supporting decriminalization.
Davies notes that she’s never spoken to men in the sex trade, but says they need to be part of the consultation so the committee can explore all the complexities of the issue.
Ultimately, she has two hopes: that the communicating law – which prohibits communication for the purpose of prostitution – will be thrown out, and that the subcommittee will create an interim report before June if an election call does not interfere.
Indirectly, this committee may also lead to reforming Canada’s other sex laws, which Davies describes as archaic.
“I’m hoping that as a result of this review of the law, we can also apply it to the gay and lesbian community,” she says, referring to the sex laws that criminalize bawdyhouses and indecent acts. “It does allow us to get into that debate.”
Rethinking prostitution may get the ball rolling on a number of other morality laws, Siksay agrees – laws that he says directly discriminate against gay and lesbians.
While they may already be neck-deep in work, both Davies and Siksay are optimistic that this is just the beginning.