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Drag events in Canada are facing a ‘crisis’ of hate, advocate warns. What can be done?

WATCH: Drag brunch sees protesters, LGBTQ2S+ activists clash outside Calgary venue – Jan 15, 2023

In three different cities across Canada over the weekend, small groups gathered in front of libraries and restaurants where drag events were set to take place.

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Some wore red hats that read “Save Canada,” in a design similar to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps. Others had signs that appeared to perpetuate homophobic tropes alleging the events and people in the drag community were “grooming” children for sexual exploitation.

Between the revival of the homophobic “groomer” trope, which advocates say was used to vilify the LGBTQ2+ community in the 1970s and 1980s, and a worrying uptick in hate crimes, one advocate says they “wake up every morning worried” about what headlines will greet them.

“I am deeply concerned that one of these days I’ll wake up and there’ll be a headline about a shooting, or about physical assault, or sexual violence against 2SLGBTQ people in the name of addressing ‘grooming,'” said Fae Johnstone, executive director and co-owner of Wisdom2Action, a consulting firm that advocates for progressive policies on violence prevention, mental health and social inclusion.

The government’s handling of the issue, Johnstone added, is falling short.

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“I really worry that they’re treating this immediate crisis as business as usual, as if this isn’t a particular moment in our history where if we don’t act, we could see further reprisals against our communities and all of the things that we’ve fought for,” they said.

“We could start to see some of those rights rolling back.”

Both Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office and Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien’s office have condemned the hate seen at the demonstrations over the weekend.

“It’s unacceptable that children’s events across the country are being bombarded with hateful rhetoric. Homophobia and transphobia have no place in Canada,” Ien’s spokesperson, Johise Namwira, said in a statement sent to Global News.

Alexander Cohen, a spokesperson for Mendicino, added that “members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve to feel safe across our country.”

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But is the government doing enough to tackle the rising hate?

Hate crimes in Canada are growing

Hate crimes against the LGBTQ2+ community have been on the rise. Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 64 per cent uptick in hate crimes targeting sexual orientation, according to Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile, safe spaces for members of the community have been targeted in recent months.

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Five people were killed and 17 were injured at a gay nightclub — one where a drag queen’s birthday celebration was underway — in Colorado Springs last November.

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A doughnut shop in Tulsa, Okla., became a victim of arson days after hosting a drag art show earlier that same month.

Multiple events at libraries across Canada, where drag queens have read stories to kids about inclusivity, have been protested. Organizers have faced hateful slurs and threats.

Advocates are sounding the alarm about the dangers their community faces, and Mendicino’s spokesperson said the rise in hate and harassment is “alarming and unacceptable.”

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“We condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Cohen said.

“While incidents of harassment (like those seen over the weekend) are handled by local police, the federal government has an important role to play.”

Cohen pointed to the federal government’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, which has been charged with setting national standards to support targeted communities and raise awareness about the scope of hate crimes in Canada.

The task force is also supposed to help police “better understand and respond to hate crimes.”

Ien’s office, meanwhile, pointed to the Digital Citizen Initiative (DCI), which they said hopes to “counter online disinformation and other online harms and threats affecting equity-deserving groups.”

“We’re also tackling cyber bullying through the Initiative to Prevent Bullying and Cyberbullying campaign,” the spokesperson said.

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“Incidents in Coquitlam, Calgary, and Peterborough clearly show that unchallenged hatred online has real-world consequences and cannot be ignored.”

The government also unveiled its long-anticipated 2SLGBTQI+ Action Plan last summer.

The wide-ranging plan comes after a lengthy consultation process and aims to “advance rights and equality for Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and additional sexually and gender diverse people in Canada.”

“The Action Plan takes a holistic approach to addressing the substantial and persisting inequities faced by 2SLGBTQI+ individuals and communities,” its introduction read.

But this plan, Johnstone said, “was met with a shrug by community.”

“They built it up in our minds for two years. It was meant to be the … the vehicle through which to bring all of government on board to advance to 2SLGBTQ rights in Canada,” they said.

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“It was a resounding disappointment.”

Johnstone said the plan does very little to address hate and according to a search of the website containing the text of the plan, it only mentions the word “hate” four times.

“There was nothing significant targeted at addressing hate towards our communities,” they said.

According to Ien’s office, 75 per cent of the investments laid out in the action plan will go to LGBTQ2+ communities — a decision they attributed to the “disproportional amount of hate is directed to 2SLGBTQI+ communities.”

“These organizations understand what issues they face at home, act as an important liaison between their community and local decision makers, and know that education is the best tool against hatred,” the spokesperson said.

But the total investment behind the plan is just $100 million over five years — a figure Johnstone said is a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to addressing the danger LGBTQ2+ communities are faced with.

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“What I would like to see next from the federal government would be a further investment in the action plan that would allow it to be a truly whole-of-government approach,” they said.

The action plan should include “targeted investments” that deal with “anti-2SLGBTQ hate prevention,” according to Johnstone.

“That could look like community education programs, that can look like broader public awareness campaigns, and that can also look like research and investigation to understand how to better respond to this kind of hate-based rhetoric,” they said.

'Stand up for truth,' advocate urges Canadians

While the government has its role to play, average Canadians can help too, Johnstone added.

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“Now is the time to stand up for truth, LGBTQ rights, to respond to this misinformation with evidence and with facts and effectual counterarguments,” they said.

As the community awaits real change that pulls the plug on this rising tide of hatred, Johnstone fears the impact it’s already having on the community they’ve advocated on behalf of for so long.

For the first time in 10 years, Johnstone said they are “seeing queer and trans organizations opt not to speak to media” on issues that matter to their communities.

“They know that if they speak out, there is a growing risk that they will be targeted,” Johnstone said.

Still, in the face of all of this, they have hope for the future.

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“I see so much power and potential in the next generation and I want them to embrace that,” Johnstone said. “They are wonderful, brilliant and resilient young folks who deserve to live in communities that welcome and support them.”


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