Reporter’s Notebook: ‘Pride is a protest’ as queerphobia rises on Vancouver Island

2SLGBTQ+ Canadians say rising queerphobia in the U.S. is creeping its way to Vancouver Island. Reporter Lys Morton reflects on community safety.
Three photos, L-R, author Lys Morton as a noticeably queer youth, Lys at Nanaimo Pride 2019 celebration, Lys in his author photo
L-R, author Lys Morton as a noticeably queer youth, Lys at Nanaimo Pride 2019 celebration, Lys in his author photo. Photos by Lys Morton

Content note: This essay contains discussion of MAID, queerphobia and suicide. Please keep your well-being in mind as you read.

December and January were marked with the type of tears that make you suck in breath to try and stem the onslaught of emotions. Sitting on my couch, having long abandoned any attempt to stem the snot, I recall scaring the hell out of my cats with broken sobs. 

Since October I’ve gotten various inquiries from queer youth in the United States, reaching out for my assistance via online platforms such as Reddit and Discord. Perhaps the Spiderman reference in my catchphrase, “your friendly neighborhood trans guy” marked me as safe to ask the fastest ways to immigrate to Canada, move to Canada, sneak into Canada and hide away. 

Some ask if I have a couch to spare, others if I could connect them to someone with a couch. One jokingly asks if I’m up for a shotgun marriage: “Canada has Green Cards, right?”

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Close to a dozen now have asked a second question alongside “How do I get into Canada.” It’s those ones which drive me to tears the first couple of times they come up.

“How quickly could I access MAID once I’m in Canada?”

Medical Assistance in Dying, or MAID, has been legal in Canada since 2016. Two of these messages in particular stood out, partially due to the conversations that took place afterwards; my attempts to persuade them that there were more options for queer folks to make a life in Canada than just jumping right to MAID. 

At the same time, I tallied incidents scattered across the country that all pointed towards a concerning trend.

Nick says he’s 20, a trans guy living in Tennessee. There are rumblings of a bill that would restrict transgender people from accessing critical services based on their gender identity: rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, detention facilities, bathrooms, locker rooms and so forth. As an abuse survivor and someone now volunteering in these facilities, he sees this bill as a way to strip him of his safety and any future in the first career he’s imagined himself in.

“What’s the bad joke?” he replies to my efforts to steer him away from MAID as an option. “You’re all just two elections behind us or something like that?”

Why try and build a life in a country headed down the same path you’re trying to escape, Nick explains, when there’s a possible easier escape route come March 17, 2024? This is the date at which people whose sole medical condition is mental illness will possibly become eligible for MAID in Canada.

“So many people think this is a mental illness anyway, might as well take them up on that.”

The American Psychiatric Association’s latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) states that gender dysphoria, the psychological distress from a misalignment between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity, is a mental illness but transgender is not. 

While many trans and non-binary folks experience some level of gender dysphoria, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is not always medically necessary for trans and non-binary individuals to receive various gender-affirming supports.
But the myth that being trans is a mental illness has evolved into a more sinister tactic used by queer hate groups. Comments like “just 41 yourself” have been ways to harass and threaten specifically trans and non-binary folks since the National Transgender Discrimination Survey was published in 2012, which found that a staggering 41 per cent of trans people have attempted suicide due to lack of community supports, medical aid and general acceptance.

‘Pride is a riot’

2SLGBTQ+ Canadians say the rising queerphobia in the U.S. is creeping its way over the border. As Stephanie Perry, director at large for Nanaimo Pride Society tells me, the threat isn’t new but it is growing.

“This year is one of the first years that I’m living alone. So I will be able to fly a pride flag at my house because it’s only my safety that I have to consider,” they say.

The theme for 2023 Nanaimo Pride is “Pride is a riot,” one that came up early on during board planning, Perry explains. 

“We instantly agreed that’s exactly what it had to be this year, because we were going through so much in our community,” they say, referencing in part the transphobic rhetoric that spread through Nanaimo after an incident at Nanaimo Aquatic Centre.

Perry notes that the growing visibility of 2SLGBTQ+ within Nanaimo and across Canada has created a double-edged sword, providing more areas for community-building, but also placing targets on those already marginalized.

It means that while major gains have been made since the Stonewall riots, the 1969 community attempt to protect 2SLGBTQ+ Black and people of colour from increased brutality, there are other areas where the threat appears to be growing.

“I think I’m not the only one that feels like since then, there’s more backlash because of increased visibility,” says Perry.

Read more This Royal Bay student is responding to anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate with love

‘Somewhat safe for us’ in Pride

When I speak to Tigh, he says he’s 16 and living in Florida, a trans boy just trying to survive teenagehood. He asks if I think after March 2024 he would qualify for MAID. I tell him that a teenager nearly on the opposite side of the continent should not be this aware of Canada’s politics.

“I’m kind of a nerd,” he says. “My name is actually from this really old Sci-Fi show I’ve been watching. Battlestar Galactica, have you ever seen it?”

I applaud him for diving deep enough down the nerd rabbit hole to uncover the old 1978 TV series.

“Wait, there’s an even older one?” he asks.

The “really old” version Tigh is watching is the 2000s version I devoured during my early teenage years.

“Stick around long enough there will probably be another reboot,” I jest. The messages go quiet the day after, and I work to keep my anxiety down. Four days later, when Tigh reappears on socials he tells me his mom pulled him and his sibling out of school for the week on a spontaneous camping trip. The move is her attempt to protect her kids as more news of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis targeting 2SLGBTQ+ populations surfaces. 

In a proper teenage reaction, Tigh is equal parts relieved for the time away and peeved at his mom for something that’s apparently brought more attention his way.

What Tigh tells me about his mom reminds me of a friend of mine on the Island whose own child has just come out. The instant acceptance and blatant understanding she is not afraid to fight someone to protect her kid is similar.

But that’s added to the growing list of things Tigh is worried about, how his mere existence threatens those around him. As I try to explain to him his mom has every right to clothesline someone to protect her kid, I worry my friend’s kid might have those same thoughts. I know I have, scared of how people would associate me with the character of my loved one, if that would be an instant mark against them.

“I saw this really cool pronouns pin, but not a lot of people at school wear that stuff and I’m scared it would just make me more of a target,” Tigh says, and I’m reminded of my own dance in and out of the closet, depending on who is around me.

“That’s something that I don’t think that people even realize,” Perry tells me in our interview as we talk about the need for Pride. “This is one of the only times that it’s kind of somewhat safe for us. To fly the flag when we’re together.”

In May, my friend shared the People’s Party of Canada platform, specifically highlighting the call to end the ban on conversion “therapy,” to block healthcare for queer youth, and repeal Bill C-16, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

“I’m fucking scared for my kid,” my friend writes on her socials. A collection of folks in the comments tell her there’s no possible way Maxime Bernier will become prime minister in the near future.

That’s not the point, I want to scream. A political party in Canada knows they have enough support to say these things out loud. Not only does Tigh want to get out of Florida to keep himself safe, but he’s also trying to keep his mom safe.

“People are calling her a groomer,” he tells me. Simply because she has the strength to love her son.

What about petition e-4268?

I live in a Canada where family-friendly entertainment requires community members to come out and protect participants, where educators wanting to keep all of their students safe are bombarded with mass misinformation.

How is this Canada supposed to be safe for 2SLGBTQ+ folks seeking refuge from the U.S. It’s a conversation in various social circles as Petition e-4268 gains steam and signatures.

The petition is lobbying to give transgender and nonbinary people the right to claim asylum in Canada due to eliminationist laws in their home countries, regardless of where they are from, since U.S. residents are currently excluded. 

It is one of Canada’s most-signed petitions presented to the House of Commons. And while I added my own signature the moment it appeared on a Reddit thread, I can’t shake a fear I’m helping set folks up to jump from one sinking ship onto another, slightly less sinking ship.

I voice a similar comment at my other job in a coffee shop when conversation around the petition comes up.

“I don’t get it, Canada is safer. What’s the argument here?” a colleague asks. I’m still trying to mentally line up evidence when my boss comes around the corner. 

“A customer was wearing I think a Pride shirt and I need to make sure I understand it right.”

I’m quick with the joke, desperate to cut the mood from the previous conversation. “Well, as your self-declared Head of Gay department, how can I assist?”

My boss rolling her eyes and coworkers having a laugh are the exact reactions I’m looking for. I can’t help but grin at another groan-worthy joke.

“It said Gays Against Groomers? I’ve never seen that before but I think I know what it means?”

My grin stiffens, an attempt to keep the dread from entirely taking over my demeanour. Because I do know what it means, and I run through the checklist of everything about my current self that could possibly out me as trans. 

While passing privilege can feel more like just another closet, I know what safety it offers me in current climates. I’m five-foot-four with a patchy beard, still trying to figure out how to care for a hairline that receded the moment I started taking testosterone, and a deep enough voice that customers frequently comment on how loud and clear I am calling out orders. I may be a short guy, but folks started properly reading me as a man 100 per cent of the time after just over a year on testosterone. Admittedly, the year before that was a bit more dicey. 

Since coming out as trans in 2016 and moving back to Nanaimo, I have been verbally harassed various times on public transit and in two different groceries stores, physically assaulted just outside Woodgrove Mall, had multiple housing offers revoked once someone found out I was trans and lost count in my first year how many times someone questioned if I was in the right bathroom.

And still, I feel leagues safer here than back in my home province. There is a text somewhere on my phone from my mom, “I miss you so much. But I’m so relieved you don’t live here anymore. It’s not safe.”

I was one of the fortunate ones, I could move. The recent Alberta election proves just how lucky I am considering how many of Alberta’s roughly 175,000 2SLGBTQ+ residents don’t have that option. But in my safe harbour, folks seeking election on local school boards feel compelled to wave photos of gender-affirming surgery in parents’ faces. Though even when community-supported drag shows face an onslaught of threats, I’m still safer as a prairie boy Island bound.

Read more Duncan drag show backlash met with community support

Pride as a future

It’s June 1, 2023 as of the publication of this article. I haven’t heard from Nick since March, our message thread is entirely one-sided these last couple of months. It sits just above the silent message thread from a trans friend who passed due to medical neglect in April of 2020. There is no clear-cut answer as to why Nick hasn’t responded, but it’s hard not to assume the obvious. 

“Fuck DeSantis, he doesn’t get to win,” was the start of a sporadic message thread Tigh sent me mid-April. It was quickly followed by screenshots of old ACT-UP pins — from AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — Pride posters and other images of righteous queer rage.

“I’m going to Colorado after my birthday,” he tells me, laying out the bullet points of a plan thrown together, a connection up there who has offered safety. “And I’ll just try and stay super in the closet until then so no one rats out my parents.” 

He’s referring to Florida Senate Bill 254, a bill that will allow the state to take custody of a child if the “child has been subjected to or is threatened with being subjected to sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.” His mom helping him get a job at the local convenience store so he can start saving up for top surgery, his aunt and uncle attempting to purchase him a chest binder, wistful talks about one-day starting testosterone could all be argued in court as “threats.”  

I stare at the square of green flanked by oranges and red on the Movement Advancement Project’s LGBTQ Equality by State map, which tracks laws and policies within each jurisdiction, assigning an overall score of green for inclusive and red for life-threatening. 

It’s been a quick reference guide each time I hear the news about another legal attack against my community. I’ve pulled it up every time someone within my online communities mentions another state they’re thinking of fleeing to. There must be a line somewhere about the irony of finding safety in a box for a community so often championing “stepping outside the box.”

“It’s kind of mid between here and B.C., that kind of works,” he jokes, referring to how Colorado seems to sit in the exact center of a line drawn from his hometown in Florida to Vancouver, B.C.

“There’s a couch and two cats waiting for you if you ever do get this far north,” I reply. It’s a plan for a future. I make a mental note to send him pictures of Nanaimo Pride parade come Sunday, June 11.

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