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United States Embassy takes an active role in Capital Pride

American activists bring message of inclusion to Ottawa

The United States Embassy has taken an active role in this year’s Capital Pride. Credit: Julie Cruikshank

The Embassy of the United States of America is a commanding presence in the downtown Ottawa landscape. Looming over the Byward Market, it’s a dominating landmark that evokes a certain official stateliness. But the embassy has been getting into the festive spirit of late, hanging up its rainbows and taking an active role in this year’s Capital Pride.  

“Our embassies around the world regularly engage with civil society and host countries on LGBT rights, including organizing and attending conferences, promoting Pride festivals, participating in academic forums . . . supporting local, national and international civil institutions and advancing LGBT rights in every field of study and work. It is part of what we do,” says Diane Sovereign, cultural attaché at the US Embassy, in an email. 

The huge rainbow flag gracing the MacKenzie Avenue entrance is the most obvious indicator of the embassy’s warm attitude toward Pride, but it has also been instrumental in some of the festival’s programming. The embassy will co-present an Aug 22 screening of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar as part of the International Movie Night series and has brought activists Cason Crane and Stephanie Battaglino to Ottawa to take part in the festivities.

Crane, 21, is a mountaineer, an advocate for LGBT inclusion in sport and, most recently, a student of history at Princeton University. His Rainbow Summits project, which saw him scale the world’s seven tallest peaks, raised almost $135,000 for the Trevor Project, an American LGBT suicide-prevention hotline.

Battaglino is a corporate vice-president at a large New York life insurance firm. In 2005, she publicly transitioned while on the job, becoming a passionate activist for transgender people in the workplace and founding Follow Your Heart, LLC. She presents workshops and motivational speeches to help companies become trans-inclusive workplaces.

Crane is serving as Capital Pride’s international marshal, while Battaglino is hosting the Human Rights Vigil on Aug 21. Both were speakers at the Free to Learn conference on Aug 20.

“I’m really very excited to talk about what’s been happening in the United States with respect to trans rights and where we are,” Battaglino says. She says many of the corporations she works with have nondiscrimination policies in place but still have no idea what to do when faced with an actual transgender employee.

“It’s about communication and understanding how to communicate. For a lot of people that do not have trans people in their lives, they would not know how to approach a trans person without perhaps embarrassing themselves or being disrespectful to the trans person . . . it’s the communication that really kind of enacts those policies and brings them to life.”

For Crane, who was included in Out magazine’s 2013 Out 100 list, Capital Pride is a chance to get involved personally in the festivities and take an active role. “This is really my first Pride celebration,” he says. “I’ve been to the Pride parade in New York, but I’ve never really taken part, so this is a very, very special week for me.” Much of his activism has to do with the issues facing LGBT youth, “especially [for] youth growing up in ultra-conservative areas where they are not accepted.”

Both Crane and Battaglino say they’re inspired by how far Canada has come in the area of LGBT rights and would like to see the United States follow suit. They are also proud of how far their country has come on the issue, though they say there is still a long way to go.

The progress the United States is making in terms of marriage equality is wonderful, Battaglino says, but more needs to be done to address the basic human rights of the trans community, particularly in the workplace. “We have something in the US called ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is essentially going nowhere, to be very candid,” she says.

“What’s happening now is we’re faced with a situation for trans people in the US that they’re only a protected class in just a handful of states. The simple fact of the matter is, if you come out as trans in 38 states in the United States, you can be fired on the spot.”

Crane says it’s easier in large cities like Ottawa, Toronto and New York to look at the movement as though all its goals have been accomplished. “One thing I’ve noticed . . . is that we still need to reiterate to our community that we have a long way to go.

“What I would like to most see is the community continue to rally around the . . . parts of the movement that are less focused on right now, whether that’s trans rights or whether that’s focusing on homeless LGBT youth,” he says. Still, he adds, there has been a great deal of change in the US in a relatively short amount of time, and the country has been a leader in promoting LGBT rights around the world.

Speaking at the rainbow flag-raising at Ottawa City Hall on Aug 18, American Ambassador Bruce Heyman expressed the same sentiments. “Promoting LGBT rights and acceptance is a priority for all of us, our US Embassy, our seven consulates across Canada, the US Department of State and the White House,” he told the crowd.

“The United States is committed to promoting tolerance, inclusion, justice and dignity while helping to advance equality for the LGBT community . . . We all have to continue to do this work not only in the US, not only in Canada, but throughout the world.”

By taking an active role in Pride, Battaglino says, the US Embassy is leading by example. “I hope that with Cason and I here [that] the coverage and . . . the social media that’s all associated [with] the event does find its way into the US so people can see what’s happening here, because I think that what’s happening here is very special, and I think a lot of people and a lot of communities in the United States can learn a very big lesson from what is happening here in Ottawa this week.”