Reflecting on 25 years of the struggle for queer rights in the Yukon

Helen Fallding | Special to the News

I keep hearing through the grapevine what a wonderfully accepting place Whitehorse is for queers.

When I left 25 years ago, it was a dangerous environment, except within the protection of progressive social circles. For the handful of us who were “out,” threats were common, police were indifferent or hostile and churches were on the attack. Some religious extremists believed that gay people are possessed by demons that need to be expelled through a deliverance ceremony. That sounds ludicrous but in their war over young people’s souls, believers tried to shut down AIDS-prevention education at a time when our sweet, brave friends were dying.

I’m back this month to celebrate Yukon Pride, at the invitation of the Yukon Human Rights Commission and Queer Yukon. The queer landscape is unrecognizable, with a parade route that starts at a church and the Yukon government designing “an inclusive public engagement process for LGBTQ2S+ Yukoners.”

I plan to enjoy the fruits of the struggle while floating down the Yukon River with flamboyant compatriots during the Pride Paddle. On this trip “home,” I’ll also donate to the Yukon Archives my records of Yukon’s first gay organization, which my former partner Lisa Tremblay and I started in 1990. I hope others who have helped shape Yukon’s queer path will expand the collection by donating their own records and photos, since I fantasize about students mining those records for future human rights projects.

With so much transience among non-Indigenous Yukoners, it’s easy to lose track of our queer history. It’s also easy to forget that outside of our urban bubbles — whether in Whitehorse or Winnipeg, where I now live — being “out” can still be terrifying. And that Christian extremists are targeting communities across Canada’s north. And that HIV is still spreading.

When the Yukon Human Rights Act was under debate more than 30 years ago, queer people were the number one target for hate and hysteria. If that’s no longer the case, we should look around and see who needs our support. Most complaints to the Yukon Human Rights Commission relate to disability or sex discrimination. Meanwhile, most reported hate crimes in Canada’s northern territories affect members of racial/ethnic and religious minorities, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

Our own experiences as queer Canadians should help us listen to people who belong to other targeted groups. Anyone who has heard a police officer dismiss their complaint about gay-bashing should find it easy to believe Indigenous families who talk about how poorly police investigated after a loved one disappeared. And when someone claims refugees are a threat to public safety, we can smell the same kind of irrational scapegoating we used to inspire.

Here’s my advice for activists who are as young as I was when I first became a territorial shit-disturber:

• If you’re doing the human rights work that is most urgent in your generation, you’ll probably need to invest your own time and money. Try to find work that doesn’t require you to keep quiet about controversial issues and leaves enough free time for activism.

• Anger can be a great motivator, if you find a way to channel it into constructive action.

• Understand that you will be attacked, including by those who will ultimately benefit from your activism.

• Understand that your friends will be supportive at times and defensive at others because they are reluctant to believe that a place they love has serious flaws.

• It helps to know a bit about psychology so you aren’t devastated by other people’s reactions and can carry on.

• Someone who disagrees with you on strategy is not your enemy. Your real enemies love it when you get distracted by infighting so keep your eye on your ultimate goal.

• Organize with others because the people who oppose you are probably already organized.

• Take care of yourself because no one wants to work with a cranky, burned-out activist.

• Stand up for other oppressed people, regardless of whether they currently do the same for you.

• Change happens over generations, so be patient but not too patient.

If you’re really lucky, in about 30 years someone will thank you.

Helen Fallding is a former journalist who manages the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba. She will be speaking at 7 p.m. on June 22 at the Old Fire Hall following a screening of the short 1992 CBC documentary Gay in the North.