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‘We’re not there yet’: Kris Wells on sexual equality on National Coming Out Day

Watch above: When the first National Coming Out Day was first celebrated in 1988, it was an opportunity for people in the LGBTQ community to show who they were. No one will deny major progress for sexual equality has been made since, but experts say there still lots of work to do. Eric Szeto reports.

EDMONTON — It’s something that can be extremely difficult and life-changing for a person: coming out.

“We would think, in 2014, everybody should be able to be out and that that would be an easy thing, but it’s still not,” said Mickey Wilson, executive director of The Pride Centre of Edmonton. “For lots of people it’s still not even an option.”

Wilson was 14 years old when he came out to his parents; something that wasn’t a good experience for him.

“My father walked me to the back door and said, ‘No queer is going to live under my roof.’ And I was allowed to put on my shoes and my jacket and I was pushed out of my door.”

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Wilson spent the next four years on the street without any support, feeling abandoned. And while his coming out was a couple decades ago and the times are changing, Wilson says stories like his aren’t as rare as some may think.

“Fourteen and on the street is not an uncommon story still today,” he said Saturday. “A little bit more than 20 per cent of our youth in Edmonton that are homeless are LGBT, so that tells a story.”

Saturday marks the 26th annual National Coming Out Day. And while coming out has become more socially accepted over the past several years, experts say society still has a long way to go.

“It’s a day where we celebrate how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go,” said Dr. Kristopher Wells, director of programs & services with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies & Services at the University of Alberta.

“We still have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students bullied in their schools, attacked on the streets.”

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According to Wells, there are five countries in the world that punish gay and lesbian people with death and more than 70 countries criminalize being gay. Here in Canada, it was just 45 years ago that gay and lesbian people were considered criminals, Wells said.

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Strides have been taken in the hopes of removing barriers for those afraid to come out, but in order for those walls to keep coming down, Wells says people from all walks of life need to be encouraged to stand up and say discrimination isn’t acceptable.

“We need our heterosexual or straight allies to come out and stand beside us and say, ‘This is a human rights issue, one that we all believe in.’

“The reason why we’ve seen such incredible social change in less than half a century is because people have come out and become visible,” said Wells. “It’s that visibility that is the greatest single factor in challenging discrimination and prejudice.”

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And while it may not be as predominant as it was in 1988, Wells says it’s the awareness on days like Saturday that make the coming out process a little bit easier.

“No one should have to go to school afraid that they’re going to be bullied or attacked because of their sexual or gender identity. No one should have to worry about holding their same sex partner’s hand while walking down the streets. But unfortunately, we’re not there yet.”

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With files from Eric Szeto, Global News.