In the past year North American groups, organizations and individuals dedicated to LGBTI rights have been part of a significant acceleration in our struggle to advance basic human rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, intersex, trans and two-spirited peoples* of North America.
This change of pace is widely welcomed. Realistically however, current advances must be viewed against the backdrop of austerity-driven economic planning and the steady decline of key social and economic indicators affecting North America’s LGBTI communities and particularly our most marginalized members.
Observers note that unequal and widening wealth distribution is developing hand in hand with public policy that dramatically undermines workplace organizing for the defence of human rights, and modifies public education systems to be increasingly stratified and disadvantaged by racism and economic injustice.
While public harassment of lesbian, gay and bisexual people appears to be decreasing in various urban centres hate crimes are reported to be on the increase across Canada. Violence aimed specifically against trans women from racialized communities is known to have increased dramatically. Across the United States these attacks are16 times that of the national rate.
Within Canada, a variety of government-funded community and health services for under-employed and poorly housed trans people have been among the first to be cut by cash-strapped government departments facing austerity-driven public policy.
After years of concerted community pressure in a number of provincial jurisdictions of Canada laws have been enacted:
- to end discrimination of trans persons based on gender identity. (Similar legislation is in its final days of debate at the national level.)
- to curtail violence against LGBTI youth and to combat homophobic / transphobic harassment and teen suicides.
It is extremely encouraging that there have been a healthy number of Canadian provincial education departments establishing pre-service teacher training on the rights of sexual minorities and an increasing number of police authorities calling on our national LGBTI organization, Egale Canada, to set up in-service anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia training for frontline officers.
Across the United States regionally-based LGBTI activists are now broadening their agenda to include work for racial justice, adoption rights, and equal housing opportunities. In the past year, during the run-up to presidential and state elections many LGBTI organizations developed strong alliances with NGO’s working to stop the introduction of fraudulent regulations in the voting process, aimed at barring elderly, young, racialized and transgender voters. Several of these proposed regulations were resoundingly defeated in states across the country.
Much legislative reform campaigning remains state-based, with the exception of the United States Supreme Court case hearing on California’s infamous Proposition 8 which restricted marriage rights to heterosexual Americans. The Supreme Court is also examining the issue of the 1996 national Defense of Marriage Act which does not require states to recognize marriages from other states and currently prevents federal recognition of LGBTI relationships. This case also includes a hearing on the constitutionality of denying marriage to LGBTI couples.
Finally, during the course of this year a key public policy tool which has become an increasingly dangerous threat to the rights of sexual minorities has taken root across the region. So-called “Right to Work” legislation established in southern US states is now being rolled out by conservative governments at the provincial, state and national levels across the industrial heartland of North America.
The introduction of such legislation contravenes workplace rights established by the International Labour Organization and related international covenants in the past 60 years. Key human rights are eliminated by this legislation. Once such laws are enacted homophobia , transphobia and other forms of discrimination have been increasingly used as a tool to weaken collective rights of assembly, the right to representation and the validity of collective bargaining as a guaranteed tool for negotiating safe, harassment-free and discrimination-free conditions of work.
Despite welcome reforms to laws and the positive impact of changing public opinion on the human rights of sexual minorities in North America, it is widely noted that the broad social forces that impact the daily lives of LGBTI people across the continent remain in place.
*North American indigenous peoples who are LGBTI identify as “two-spirited”.