On June 12, people around the world woke up to the tragic news that a lone gunman had killed 49 people and injured many more in a brutal and senseless act of violence at an Orlando nightclub.
The realization that this mass shooting targeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people was yet another disheartening reminder that discrimination still fuels acts of hatred and physical violence, both at home, and abroad.
Just this past week, Turkish police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to prevent a “Trans Pride” event from being held to mark the beginning of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Week in Turkey.
Earlier this year, Canada’s only clinic providing gender confirmation surgery to transgender people was the subject of an arson attack in Montreal.
After the atrocities of World War II, it was thought that the creation of laws and institutions to affirm the basic rights of individuals would provide a shield against discrimination.
But the events of June 12 remind us that no defence is perfect and that the fight against discrimination is ongoing.
Since 1987 the Yukon Human Rights Commission has worked to inform and educate Yukoners about their rights and obligations and to provide an effective way to address acts of discrimination.
When the Yukon Human Rights Act was passed in 1987 it was one of the first in Canada to include sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
Yukon was an early leader in recognizing the rights of gay and lesbian couples. It became the first Canadian jurisdiction to extend benefits to same sex couples through its public sector collective agreements in 1990. The territory changed the definition of “spouse” in the Employment Standards Act in 1992 and then in other legislation in 1998 and 1999.
We were the fourth jurisdiction in Canada to legalize same-sex marriage following a successful court challenge in 2004.
In 2014, Yukon amended its Vital Statistics Act to allow same-sex parents to be named on their children’s birth certificates.
Yukon government has also taken positive steps to recognize and protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and 2-spirited (LGBTQ2) students and community members in Yukon schools through its educational policy.
While the Yukon has taken some positive steps to protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation over the past 19 years, there is still much work to be done in ensuring equality for all members of our society.
Governments across Canada, including the federal government, have amended their human rights legislation in recent years to include protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.
The Yukon Human Rights Commission asked the government in 2008 to add gender identity to section 7 of the Human Rights Act. That didn’t happen when the Act was amended in 2009.
Although the Yukon Legislative Assembly passed a motion last year agreeing to address this issue the next time the Act is reviewed, no concrete action has been taken.
The Human Rights Act is not the only Yukon legislation needing to be updated to ensure that transgender Yukoners can participate fully in the life of the community without discrimination.
Currently, our Vital Statistics Act requires transgender individuals undergo gender confirmation surgery before being permitted to change their sex on their birth certificates.
Transgender people around the world experience violence, discrimination, and mental health issues at far higher rates than the general population, and these risk factors are exacerbated by laws and policies which undermine trans people’s ability to affirm their identities in all areas of their lives.
Despite this, there are trans people in Yukon and elsewhere taking on the burden of challenging discriminatory laws in order to ensure they can live with dignity as equal members of our society.
The horrific events of June 12 should be taken as a reminder of the importance of actively addressing prejudices that continue to be pervasive in our own communities.
We know that homophobia and transphobia, along with Islamophobia, continue to exist in our society and silence in the face of such hatred can become equivalent to complicity.
Refusing to be complicit can take many forms. On a systemic level, it might mean adopting transgender standards of healthcare or changing laws and policies which compromise the safety and well-being of transgender people by preventing them from affirming their gender identity.
Or ensuring our school curriculum includes positive discussions of how stereotypes, such as homophobia and assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture and abilities, can affect how a person feels about themselves, as Ontario has recently done.
On a personal level, it could mean working to make our families and workspaces safer for all people, for instance, by calling out homophobic or transphobic remarks, and by using people’s chosen names and pronouns.
We could also challenge ourselves to consider the way in which assumptions we frequently make about people’s gender and sexual orientation make LGBTQ2 people feel uncomfortable.
Recently, the Pride flag was raised on Parliament Hill for the first time. In the Yukon, in addition to the Pride flag, the City of Whitehorse will be flying the transgender flag outside the Public Safety Building at the top of Two Mile Hill during Pride celebrations this year.
This marks the first time that the trans flag has been flown by a municipality or government in the territory.
All Genders Yukon, an organization that supports trans and gender non-conforming individuals in Yukon, is hosting the flag raising ceremony on June 23rd at noon. There will be a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting during the ceremony.
In the spirit of supporting those who are fighting for human rights protections, and in rejecting the hatred and prejudice that fueled what is a most extreme example of violence against LGBTQ2 people, the Commission urges Yukoners to join in the flag raising and other Pride celebrations happening this weekend.
Colleen Harrington is legal counsel for the Yukon Human Rights Commission. Theo Lyons is the commission’s summer intern.