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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Rainbow crosswalk vandalism part of troubling trend, experts say
Joshua Russell, co-chair of OUT Niagara, is concerned bigoted ideas may continue to gather momentum. He is thankful Canada's multi-party system tends to make it harder for extremists to amass power. EVAN LOREE Evan Loree

A small stretch of painted pavement has become the site of a symbolic battle in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The town’s new rainbow crosswalk was targeted by vandals for a fourth time in early August. This time they left a message on the painted asphalt reading “Die f- -gs,” and “f- -k gay people.”

The letters BLM were written as well, presumably referring to the social justice movement, Black Lives Matter.

Attacks on LGBTQ+ symbols like these are not unique to NOTL. They are playing out on a national scale.

A report from Statistics Canada shows police-reported hate crimes targeting people’s sexual orientation rose to 423 in 2021 from 265 in 2019.

That’s about a 60 per cent increase in two years.

According to a report published in June by the U.S. Anti-Defamation League, there were 356 documented extremist – and non-extremist – incidents against the LGBTQ+ community in the United States from June 2022 to this past April.

Of those incidents, 305 were harassment, 40 were vandalism and 11 were assaults.

Just as the symbols of the LGBTQ+ community are targeted with hate, so too are its people.

For the first three months of 2023 Egale, a Canadawide LGBTQ+ advocacy group, documented 6,423 instances of online hate messaging and anti-trans protests targeted at the community.

Many of the posts documented by the group can be read on its webpage for the Pride Unravelled project.

Egale describes the targeted harassment as a “rising tide of hate” which can “no longer be ignored.”

Community activists and diversity experts contend the targeting of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s crosswalk isn’t just part of a national trend, but a historical one.

Margot Francis, an associate professor at Brock University’s centre for women’s and gender studies, said a lot of anti-trans talking points are nothing new.

“These ideas have circulated for a long time, probably a couple of centuries,” Francis said.

One argument often marched onto the political stage is that educating children about LGBTQ+ identities is a form of child grooming, pedophilia or indoctrination. 

Francis remembers when she co-founded a student advocacy program called Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia in 1993 – much of the rhetoric stemmed from Christian groups.

“There was a lot of mobilization by Christian parents against the idea of human rights for LGBT students,” she said. 

Francis said conservative religions “never actually followed the larger societal trends,” even as the LGBTQ+ community gained more acceptance.

She said the groomer narrative has “come back with a vengeance.”

“There is an authoritarian kind of string that is gaining more popularity and legitimacy throughout the Western world,” she added.

The York Catholic District School Board’s decision not to raise the pride flag in May was a “super troubling” example of the authoritarian shift in politics, she said.

In her work as a professor, Francis said she hears “over and over again” about the “lack of any kind of comprehensive sex education” in Catholic schools.

More locally, Natalia Benoit, a school trustee for the Catholic board representing Niagara-on-the-Lake, also tried to pass a policy that would have prohibited schools from raising the Pride flag.

Benoit’s motion framed the policy change as an attempt to “promote education instead of indoctrination.”

The motion made an exception for the Catholic faith after proposing a prohibition on employees advocating for students on “any partisan, political or social policy issue.” 

A spokesperson for the Catholic school board of Niagara said the board does not support Benoit’s view.

The People’s Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier, also frames LGBTQ+ activism as indoctrination.

On its policy page, the far-right party frames itself as the protector of women and children, just as it frames LGBTQ+ activism as a threat to those same groups.

Bernier’s tactics are similar to those of the Republican party in the United States.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through a law to prevent “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.”

Infamously dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, it was somewhat less infamously called the “Anti-Grooming Bill” by DeSantis’ spokesperson Christina Pushaw on Twitter.

Pushaw said people who are against the law are probably also groomers.

Samah Sabra, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Niagara College, said pushback like this often comes when social activists are making the most gains.

When an equity-deserving group gains rights they have fought hard for, the gains come with increased visibility,” she said.

As minority groups like transgender people become more visible, it becomes harder for prejudiced people to ignore them, she added.

“It might feel to them like their world is changing and they are not yet ready or equipped to respond to that diversity,” she said.

The problem may be that people take comfort in the “sameness” of their neighbours, Sabra said.

And they are more likely to oppose change if they see “difference as threatening rather than enriching.”

Sabra stressed the importance of using education to combat the fear.

Joshua Russell, co-chair of OUT Niagara, said the perceived increase in transgender people is best explained by increased acceptance of the community.

The activist pointed out that adults and seniors, not just kids, are coming out as trans in greater numbers.

“They see that there’s a place for them,” he said, and that makes them more comfortable about coming out. 

Russell, an openly gay man, remembers when he was young and “coming to terms” with his sexuality.

“I heard a lot about the dangers of sex education,” he said.

Growing up as a gay man, there was much fear over the AIDS epidemic and much worry about the gay community indoctrinating children into the “promiscuous gay lifestyle,” he said.

Russell said the fear that children are “under threat” from the LGBTQ+ community is a “false narrative.”

And the groomer narrative is an easy way to attract support, too. 

“No matter who you are, you might agree that children are worthy of protection,” Russell said.

But he thinks the threat is greater when children are not allowed to freely express themselves.

A report from the Canadian Medical Association supports Russell’s view.

The study involving 6,800 adolescents found that transgender kids are five times more likely to think about suicide and 7.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual kids.

The authors of the report said transgender kids receiving gender-affirming therapy think about suicide at a similar rate to non-transgender kids. 

Gender-affirming care, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, may include psychiatric counselling, hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery. 

Gender-affirming surgery is a sex change operation and it is the target of much concern by right-wing political pundits. 

For example, the People’s Party of Canada refers to gender-affirming surgery as “mutilation” and argues any form of sexual reassignment surgery should be unavailable to minors.

The Canadian Paediatric Society, however, points out that these surgeries are restricted to people who are 18 years and older.

Francis explained the fixation on transgender people best.

“Trans people, especially, have become a larger-than-life symbol for what social conservatives seem to describe as a world upside down,” Francis said.

They are also easy to target, she added.

While some news pundits have argued that anti-trans bigotry is filtering into the Canadian media system through American media, Russell thinks the hate has always been here at home.

“I think people here in Canada are emboldened by what they see in the United States,” he added, pointing to the People’s Party as an example of how American political trends can get picked up in Canada

However, Russell also argued that Canada’s multi-party political system somewhat insulates the country from discriminatory legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

He argued that while there are probably plenty of people in Canada who would support anti-trans legislation, they haven’t amassed the power to make an impact at the federal level.

When The Lake Report informally surveyed the community in late 2021 about how they felt about the crosswalk, a slim majority of respondents were in favour at 51 per cent.

Another 5.8 per cent said they did not care and 42.8 per cent said they were against it.

Despite Russell’s optimism, he is concerned the rhetoric of the People’s Party will give momentum to hate movements – opening the door for people who may hold similar views.

“I don’t think we should be complacent,” he said.

“These small symbols of hate are certainly indication that there are people out there who would support such policies.”

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