Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to make a formal apology on behalf of all Canadians to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people who have been imprisoned, fired from their jobs or otherwise persecuted in the past because of their sexuality.
Why is it important for governments to address historic wrongs?
MB: Governments are not neutral entities in creating, mediating, benefiting from, and in some cases, repairing and changing the course of historic, systemic injustice. For example, the “fruit machine” was a device developed at a Canadian public university in the 1950s and 1960s to identify gay people. It was deployed to eliminate people working in government, the military and then widely utilized by the RCMP for over two decades. Government workers identified as homosexual were harassed and in many cases fired.
When I arrived as an assistant professor at UBC in 1988, sexual orientation was not named in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. When I realized I had no access to same-sex employment benefits, I undertook an advocacy initiative without being able to point to or rely on human rights protections. The fact that the UBC faculty who undertook this initiative were successful is a testimony to the relationship that invariably exists in the tensions between government intervention and community activism.
Trudeau’s apology will provide a form of recognition that is public and that carries a great deal of gravitas. Formal recognition of systemic inequality, and the harms that inequalities produce, provides an important step towards repair. It also provides major public institutions like UBC with a wonderful opportunity to leverage and utilize our major public commitments, relationships and capital towards repair.
A key area for intervention in this regard would be to provide all transgender and gender diverse students, staff and faculty at UBC with a climate, spaces and services that are inclusive and appropriate. We could undertake, for example, to change our building codes, healthcare services, athletic activities, and information systems, so as to identify the ways in which these systems could be more inclusive and in so doing, cause less harm.
What impact will the apology have? Is it enough to make a difference in the everyday lives of LGBTQ people?
JPC: One admittedly cynical possibility is that the apology is a mere symbolic gesture and will not have much impact. However, I do think the apology opens up opportunities for further action. LGBTQ organizations, especially community-based ones, will rightfully make strategic use of Trudeau’s formal apology to make further claims on the government for legislative and policy changes and for more sustained support for programs for LGBTQ communities. An apology can offer a starting point for moving towards a more socially just, perhaps even queerer, future.
However, I do worry about the very likely possibility of the apology being mobilized in a way that it becomes a measure of how much better Canada is than other parts of the world, which can have the racist effect of ranking cultures and countries using LGBTQ-friendliness as a metric of progress and civilization. This can serve to play down the continued gravity of certain LGBTQ struggles here—including those experienced by trans people, especially those of colour— while also facilitating racist attitudes toward cultures deemed “backward” by such metrics. Indeed, now more than ever, it is very important to think very critically about state-sanctioned homophobia in places like India and Uganda. A too celebratory account of the apology as a patriotic nod to Canadian exceptionalism can serve to silence these other ongoing issues.
An apology, in and of itself, is absolutely not enough. Action is needed, especially given the continuing effects of government-sanctioned homophobia, transphobia and cis-heteronormativity (the assumption that everyone identifies with their sex assigned at birth). Support for on-the-ground strategies is necessary. Commitment to long term and sustainable support – financial and political – for community-based social services for the LGBTQ communities, by the LGBTQ community is necessary, especially since many of the structural issues that lead to the need for these services are themselves legacies of government-sanctioned homophobic, transphobic and heteronormative violence.