Despite advances, Canada’s gay community faces troubling signs of intolerance

It’s Pride Month, time to affirm and celebrate the presence in our communities of people who identify as LGBTQ2+. It is also a time to remember that, not long ago, such celebrations weren’t possible.

Statistics Canada, working from data gathered in 2018, reports Canada is home to approximately one million people who are LGBTQ2+, accounting for four per cent of the population aged 15 and older.

I was born in 1961. Like many of my vintage, I was raised to think any sexual identity outside of the conventional binary heterosexual one was weird, wrong and probably dangerous. I confess it was not until I was in my early 20s that I began to question those negative attitudes.

I am thankful my adult children are part of a far more enlightened generation.

A few years ago, a good friend came out to me. It wasn’t easy for him. We are both ordained ministers. I serve in the United Church of Canada, a denomination that became officially more inclusive in 1988, but still has pockets of resistance to the idea that God loves all people as they are, regardless of sexual or gender identity.

My friend was pretty sure I was more open, more kind than some he had met in my denomination, but he couldn’t know for certain.

The U.S. military is famous for having had, for many years, an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Within Christian circles we tend to have a “don’t talk about that in case it bothers someone” approach.

My friend is part of a denomination in which he’s had to hide his identity as a gay man. It’s likely that many in his congregation are playing the “don’t go there” game. They like him, appreciate his many gifts and go along with the charade because, frankly, it’s not easy to find a “good” minister. The unspoken arrangement is he’s allowed to serve the church and its people, as long as he masks his identity.

We only need to follow the “don’t say gay” stories from south of the border to see how attitudes, biases and fears about human sexuality are used to divide people and to shore up power.

Living under that kind of shadow makes it hard to know who your friends are and what they really think and feel about you. It’s a lonely way to live that requires and encourages secrecy, deception and hyper-vigilant caution.

A popular Facebook meme says: “If your religion teaches it’s okay to hate someone for who they love, you need a new religion.”

It seems to me that while many Christians no longer encourage that sort of hatred, they will for the sake of not making waves or upsetting someone stay silent. I have at different stages of my career experienced pressure to “not talk about that” for fear of ticking off the wrong person.

It has to be terrible to live in fear of the judgment and hatred of others. Fear is a powerful emotion that is so easily turned into a weapon.

We only need to follow the “don’t say gay” stories from south of the border to see how attitudes, biases and fears about human sexuality are used to divide people and to shore up power. Sadly, there are indications in Canadian society that we are not as open, accepting and kind as we could be.

There have been a series of news stories from communities in Ontario about Pride decorations and flags being torn down. This is cowardly, bullying behaviour. The Greater Essex County District School Board reports Pride flags have been stolen or vandalized at four local public schools.

In Tillsonburg, the bullies went beyond destruction of property, leaving a written threat to damage a person’s home.

The good news is that following many of these incidents of hateful vandalism, local business owners, civic leaders and ordinary people have stepped up and spoken out and begun working together.

They have allied to clean up the mess, replace the Pride decorations and send the message that there is no room for hate in their communities. 

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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