Living free, living gay in Toronto: a look at initiatives to fight discrimination against LGBTQ

Fall comes with many changes, time changes, leaf colour changes, and wardrobe changes. This fall, Toronto is

Sexual Diversity Activism plaque honoring UTHA

experiencing a bigger change still; a change in the fight against discrimination geared at LGBTQ people.

Remembrance Day passed and on this day Canadians remembered and honoured the soldiers, who fought across the ocean. This November, some Canadians remembered a different fight as well, one that took place right at home, in the city of Toronto, the fight for gay rights.

Let us fall back to the fall of 1969, the fall of some radical change in the shape of gay rights activism in Toronto. In late October and early November, 42 years ago, the first gay organization at a Canadian University, the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) was formed. Their goal was to advocate equality rights by giving a voice to marginalized sexual minorities and challenging the discriminatory practices of the state and society.

“Gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people refused to hide and abase themselves to assuage the prejudices of the majority,” Charles Hill, UTHA’s first president reminisced.

On Nov. 2, the first LGBT- related plaque in Ontario was unveiled. The majestic looking plaque, courtesy of Ontario Heritage Trust, is beautiful in royal blue and adorned with golden letters. It proudly sits on the east side of University College, from where it watches over the Student Union and Hart House.

“To give an award is very easy, but to encourage what the award means is much more work,” Melanie Phan, a LGBTQ student at U of T, said.

Phan said that it is important to remember how LGBTQ people got the rights they enjoy today.

“To forget that something happened, is to allow it to happen again,” Phan said.

The days Hill fought against, days when the RCMP interrogated gays and the media bashed on gay rights activism are over. Today, gay marriage is legal and gay couples can adopt children.

“It may seem as though the obstacles have fallen…but we are repeatedly reminded that the fight is not over,” Hill said.

Tears stung Hill’s eyes as he pointed to the recent suicide of Jamie Hubley, who took his life as a result of being bullied at school for his sexual orientation.

“The fight to achieve self-identity and self-affirmation can be very lonely and very painful,” said Hill in a shaky, sombre voice.

This year, the celebration of sexual diversity and gay culture in Toronto was missing an integral part: the mayor’s support and appearance.

Mayor Rob Ford refused to attend the annual Pride Parade, preferring instead to retreat to his cottage with his family. His decision caused an explosion of virtual applause on his Facebook page.

“Minding your own business is not helpful at all, and silence doesn’t mean that it’s accepted, it just means that it’s tolerated and people shouldn’t be tolerated, people should be celebrated,” Mike Plumton said.

Plumton is the training and programming coordinator in residence at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. He started an annual event, Rainbow Tie Gala, to raise awareness of LGBTQ groups on campus and to address some key issues surrounding sexuality.

“There are a lot of people who are struggling, who don’t find it safe…we have transphobia, homophobia [and] a lot of it is just quiet,” Plumton said “just because we don’t see things, we don’t have people vandalizing, doesn’t mean stuff like that doesn’t exist.”

The Rainbow Tie Gala never received any negative feedback or comments, according to Plumton, but last year, he saw students tear down the posters inviting students to participate in the event.

“[Discrimination] is a silent thing,” Plumton said, “and it knocks me back in confidence and power as an individual.”

Adding to the recent changes in the visibility of gay culture and gay discrimination is a controversial campaign, “It gets better”. The campaign is aimed at LGBTQ teens that experienced bullying as a result of their sexual orientation, and it aims to tell them that if they can hang in and make it through their teenage years, things will start looking up.

“It gets better is geared towards kids who are bullied because they are gay, but it doesn’t take care of the actual problem,” Phan said “people who are bullying homosexuals are still out there and society is not doing anything to help them be rehabilitated.”

Change is in the chilly, fresh air of Toronto and as people think and talk about discrimination against gays, the pages of newspapers are filling up with different opinions on how to make it better. This fall, like the fall of 1969, brings change to the gay rights community, as high profiled people like former mayoral candidate George Smitherman, CBC-TV’s Rick Mercer, Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury and ordinary Canadians alike take a look at Hubley, and strive to fight against the silence and the discrimination against LGBTQ people.


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