The fight for LGBT human rights has seen some incredible triumphs over the years. Marriage equality is slowly but steadily coming to more and more places; the visibility of gay, lesbian and trans people in media is increasing; and widespread acceptance is on the rise. But there have also been some devastating lows.
The Sochi Olympics served as a grim reminder that even in developed countries, LGBT people can face persecution sanctioned by their own governments. The recent signing into law of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes some gay people with life in prison, is nothing short of chilling. Even here in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal for nearly a decade and the rights and freedoms of LGBT people are protected nationwide, we haven’t yet managed to shrug off the heavy burden of homophobia. One need only look as far as the recent stabbing of Scott Jones in Nova Scotia or the ongoing spate of LGBT-youth suicides for evidence of the real and lasting damage done when fear and ignorance are allowed to go unchecked.
But despite the enduring violence, there is also hope. Jer’s Vision, Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative, is about to celebrate its ninth anniversary — a milestone that falls, fittingly, in the same year as the 45th anniversary of the passing of Bill C-150. Officially known as the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the 1969 omnibus bill decriminalized homosexuality in Canada, provided it happened in private between people aged 21 or older. It was a small step and the first of many in the struggle for full LGBT rights and equality.
Its legacy can be seen in organizations like Jer’s Vision, which was formed in 2005 as a scholarship fund and is now a recognized leader in the fight to eliminate bullying, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination based on sexual and gender identity. “What’s amazing is Jer’s Vision started in my living room, quite literally,” says founder Jeremy Dias. “When I walk into the office, the fact that we have an office can be a bit of a surprise.”
Jer’s Vision accomplishes its goals through youth-led volunteer workshops and educational programming in schools and communities. The team makes an effort to reach youth in even the most isolated and conservative communities. “Even today in schools across the country, there are places where you can’t talk about being queer or trans, or you can’t talk about LGBTQ issues,” says Dias, recounting an email he received after a workshop in Barrie, Ontario, from a student who said it was the first time he had ever spoken about LGBT issues with anyone. “Through the work that Jer’s Vision does, we’re realizing that this is not the reality just for one person in Barrie; it’s a reality for so many youth.”
One of the criticisms lobbed at Bill C-150 by the opposition in 1969 was that by legalizing homosexuality, LGBT people would be given carte blanche to “recruit” children and minors. On the bill’s third reading, MP Martial Asselin said, “The minister knows quite well that, in general, homosexuals do not wait until they are attracted by persons of age . . . Homosexuals are mostly inclined to pervert youngsters and the minister opens the door even wider.”
A more recent example of this mentality can be seen in Russia’s gay-propaganda law, officially known as the law “On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development.” Such legislation creates a disconnect between LGBT youth and their communities and culture by endeavouring to keep them closeted, denying them access to adult role models and to each other.
As Dias explains, the passing of C-150 in 1969 didn’t automatically end prejudice and homophobia in Canada, nor did it impart an understanding of LGBT issues to the masses. “I think a lot of people in our community forget how difficult it is to be LGBTQ throughout our lives,” he says. Jer’s Vision works to combat this issue by connecting queer-identified youth with each other as mentors, empowering them to become directly involved in effecting change.
One of the organization’s major initiatives, the Day of Pink, also celebrates an anniversary this year. In 2007 in Nova Scotia, a pair of straight students chose to wear pink shirts to school in support of a gay student who was being bullied. The cause was taken up by Jer’s Vision, and April 9 will mark the fifth anniversary of its involvement.
“The Day of Pink advocates that everyone is a bully, everyone is a bystander, everyone’s a victim,” Dias says. “What are we doing to support people in our community, what are we doing to support ourselves, and what are we doing to improve ourselves to address that form of bullying that’s happening?”
When bullying is not addressed, he says, cultures are created in which hurtful language and actions are tolerated and even expected. “That’s where transphobia comes from. That’s where genderphobia, queerphobia, racism — that’s where these things come from. These are learned behaviours.” In addition to encouraging people to wear pink on April 9, Jer’s Vision distributes free resources for schools and workplaces and presents a gala event where awards are given to prominent LGBT advocates.
When examining bullying, Dias stresses the importance of self-reflection. “It’s easy to point the finger and criticize someone. It’s really hard to listen to that criticism, take it in, and then take action,” he says. And in the ongoing fight to end bullying and homophobia, action is key. “I’m the first one to admit, a pink T-shirt does not stop bullying. A single workshop on anti-homophobia does not stop homophobia . . . If homophobic and transphobic violence, bullying, discrimination are complex behaviours learned throughout life, then what do we need? We need a complex, multilayered solution.”
Jer’s Vision continues to work toward that solution every day, one step at a time. “You just every day get up and do your best and hope that you’re going to make a difference. What’s really amazing is, we do.”