How many pride flags have been burned or torn down in Alberta in the past 5 years? How many Pride crosswalks have been vandalized? If your answer is greater than zero for either, there’s a problem.
- In Lethbridge, the Pride crosswalks downtown were vandalized twice in the summer of 2017.
- During the month of June 2017, the Pride flag was shredded and later burned in the town of Taber. The next year, the town denied the proposal to fly the flag again, it was later flown at the provincial government building. The proposal was denied once again in 2019.
- In 2017, a Pride flag outside an Edmonton High School was cut down prior to a Pride celebration.
- In 2018, a Calgary elementary school was vandalized with racist and homophobic graffiti.
- By September 2019, the Pride crosswalk in Sylvan Lake had been vandalized 4 times since it had been painted in June of that year.
- In Airdrie, their pride crosswalk was vandalized twice, once with black paint and another instance with tar and feathers in the summer of 2020. Plus, there was an instance of homophobic graffiti in the town that same summer.
Alberta has a casual culture of hate that it accepts as the norm. This manifests in violence against marginalized and interconnected communities. There’s an alarming trend in the province—and specifically southern Alberta—of very public, very vocal hate levelled against the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Every new act of vandalism, public denouncement of “deviant lifestyles”, and denial of support from communities and institutions reminds the queer and trans communities of Alberta of an ever-present message: they’re not welcome, they’re not valued, they’re not accepted.
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Flying a flag is an inherently performative gesture: a city can fly the Pride flag for one month a year yet neglect the 2SLGBTQ+ community for the other 11 months of the year.
While the Pride flag was flown outside the capital building in Edmonton for 24 days in 2019, it was flown for only 24 hours in 2020. UCP government officials explained it as being due to a new policy of only flying “ceremonial” flags for 24 hours.
This prompted the Alberta NDP caucus to fly the Pride flag outside their building during Pride month in 2020, as well as for 2021.
The flying of the Pride flag for a single day speaks volumes to how the Alberta provincial government values queer and trans individuals and experiences. It also indicates their level of efficient performativity demonstrated across Alberta, often begrudgingly.
Coupled with a minimal showing of visible support, elected officials continue to demonstrate their disregard for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals through their voting decisions.
A recent example was witnessed in Lethbridge just in the last year surrounding the passing of Bylaw 6228, the Bylaw to Prohibit the Offering of Conversion Therapy Services.
A minority of city council members resisted the passing of this bill, calling for a public hearing to be held to allow citizens to voice their concerns.
This motion was voted down by the city council on the grounds that a hearing was unnecessary to pass the bylaw. A public forum would serve only as an audience for individuals to voice homophobic and transphobic opinions while also retraumatizing queer and trans individuals who’d be obliged to participate.
Mayoral candidate and current city councillor Blaine Hyggen recently posted a video to his campaign Facebook page explaining that his opposition to the bylaw was due to a lack of strong and precise language.
In a news article last year, Global News quoted Hyggen on the issue: “The concern that most people have spoken with me about with conversion therapy is the torture, the chemical castration, the lobotomy, et cetera.” He stated that his opposing vote was because he thought the bylaw needed stronger language against torture.
Hyggen adopted the familiar rhetoric that a conversion therapy ban would prevent queer and trans individuals to seek therapy.
This perspective is deeply rooted in the notion that queer and trans folks of faith wishing to “change” their “lifestyle” do so of their own free will, because they seek to “get help” for their identity. When considered in the context of the teachings of many Christian faiths—that queer and trans identities are inherently sinful and will lead to eternal damnation—what free will can one have, especially if these are teachings repeatedly taught to a person from a young age?
I’d infer that Hyggen, as a city councilor, had the ability to provide input on language throughout the process. Choosing a vote of opposition for the final passing of the bill doesn’t seem to be the most effective way to show one’s self-proclaimed support for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. It does, however, have the optics of pandering to Christian conservatives who oppose human rights for queer and trans folks.
This sort of double talk isn’t limited to the city council.
MP Rachael Harder provided similar justification for her vote in opposing Bill C-6 in the House of Commons. When I contacted Harder regarding her justification for her vote, she replied, “My Conservative colleagues and I will continue to fight for the rights and protection of all Canadians, including those in the LGBTQ2+ community, at home and abroad. I believe in standing up against hatred and discrimination in all its forms.”
She also claimed that the wording of the bill, in her opinion, threatened the freedom of parents (and faith leaders) to speak with their children. It is essential to note that the votes in opposition to Bill C-6 were almost entirely Conservative party members.
This tracks with the ongoing trend of conservative politicians to side against 2SLGBTQ+ rights and legal protections. Justifications are provided, but they ultimately beg the question: at what point of compromising does a piece of legislation no longer meet its original intention because it tries to make equal space for the marginalized and the majority?
The root of the issues faced by queer and trans individuals in Alberta are those of a culture opposed to equality for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals.
Equality is framed as making space for both the oppressed and the oppressor: White supremacists should receive equal space as anti-racist advocates do; queer and trans folks should make space for the beliefs of religious groups that denounce their identities as “sinful”.
What this does not address is equity: which group has an advantage because the systems and structures of power within our society are predisposed to benefit them, and which groups must fight for the same access, protection, and security.
In Alberta, queer and trans advocates must share space with anti-2SLGBTQ+ activists who weaponize rhetoric rooted in conservative religious dogma and old-school homophobia. We exist in a culture that believes it has done enough for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
In Lethbridge, a flag is flown and there’s a parade downtown, and that is deemed “good enough”. Yet queer and trans students still face bullying and violence in schools. And these same schools are reluctant to establish GSAs and gender-neutral bathrooms amidst backlash from parents and faith groups who fear their children will be poisoned by the “gay agenda”.
While we must be aware of what’s being done to harm the 2SLGBTQ+ community, we must also acknowledge what’s not being done to support them.
In Lethbridge, there are few support services for queer and trans youth and adults.
Resources such as support groups, mental health resources, health resources, and community-building events often fall on the shoulders of non-profit organizations. These groups, largely run by volunteers and underpaid staff, work to provide the bare minimum of services and fill in the gaps left by an underfunded and overworked public health system.
Educational programmes to foster safe and inclusive spaces are often offered by unpaid queer and trans volunteers.
To date, the city has not acted to support its queer and trans residents in a meaningful way, beyond flags, crosswalks, and a parade.
City-sponsored support groups, community-building events, and educational opportunities for service providers and communities are vital moves of support that the 2SLGBTQ+ community needs.
With the closure of the Arches Supervised Consumption Site, a decision was made to not seek a renewal of funding for the Arches Queer Health programme, due to the stigma the organization faced at the time over later disproven allegations of financial mismanagement. This critical loss left a gap in the community that had served as a gateway for vital information and connections to healthcare providers for queer and trans folks.
Lethbridge’s queer and trans communities desperately need support. During the pandemic, we have seen wave after wave of burnout as volunteers worked to support queer and trans folks despite the loss of personal agency. This has led to a severe reduction in the services and resources available in the city.
Beyond Lethbridge, southern Alberta is virtually barren of community supports or the capacity to offer services and programs.
Municipalities can make a difference by supporting 2SLGBTQ+ services and programmes and taking the initiative to consult with community members to find ways to make our city more inclusive. Lethbridge must demonstrate that it’s a city that values and respects the human dignity of its queer and trans residents.
There is much work to be done to address the immediate and material needs of the 2SLGBTQ+ community while also working to address the larger issues of systemic discrimination and hate. All Lethbridge lacks is the political will to start the conversation.