ILGA meets… Stephen Seaborn, activist and union worker


How did you become an activist?

I am a public sector worker in arts and culture, and I was – and still am – an activist within my union: in fact I even came out during a union meeting! Back then I was working on labour and workers rights and internationalism, and it all slowly began to morph into being committed to LGBTI rights within the workplace and the community.

Soon after I came out I was gay-bashed, as they call it: it happened about 18 years ago, at a time when we encouraged people to report any violence. I was walking beside a community centre which is well-known in Toronto as a strong support centre for new Canadians, asylum seekers and the local LGBTI community: someone came after me out of the bushes, suddenly I was on the ground… I was determined to report what had happened, and I did: within the year that followed I was interviewed by national newspapers, and I kept telling my story as part of an effort to get other people to report similar incidents.

My union has been totally supportive, and my work with them continued: now I am the Solidarity and Pride vice-president in the Ontario Federation of Labour, responsible of 140,000 LGBTI workers. I usually say, though, that I only know 99 of these 140,000 persons: most of us are still not out in their workplaces. In Canada we may have achieved marriage equality ten years ago, but receiving acceptance from colleagues and feeling comfortable in workplaces is a whole other story.

The violence I have experienced is increasing. It is a dramatic response to the higher visibility we have gained: homelessness and the suicide rates among young workers are rising, and this is what I came to share with the Human Rights Committee.

How serious is this backlash?
A higher visibility has resulted in higher vulnerability: a serious homo-bi-transphobia has resulted in more and more students being bashed across the country. Statistics indicate a level of violence that is unprecedented: in the two major provinces of Canada, 28 per cent of LGBTI youth have experienced violence directly, and also the rate of suicide is on the rise among young workers.

What needs to be done to stop this emergency?
Our federal government likes to think that everything is fine because we have marriage equality while other countries are facing serious situations, but it has to get over it. As I said to the Human Rights Committee, we need clear rules and regulations criminalising every form of homophobic, transphobic and biphobic violence. We need to focus on public education: officials and public sector workers need to be trained. But, first of all, we need legislation that criminalises hate speech and other actions against the LGBTI community; we also need laws to prevent violence against two-spirited people who face multiple, intersecting oppressions.

You don’t change attitudes overnight, but you can change behaviours: and behaviours need to change

Marriage is nice, of course, but the real battle begins now: the religious right is on a rise in Canada as it is throughout the Americas, and it is fomenting hatred in the name of “family values”.

I am sorry to say, though, that officials don’t really get the situation we are in, as was made clear by the answer they gave during Canada’s review by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which was lame and weak.

What did they say?

They completely avoided any discussion on LGBTI issues. “We’re doing wonderfully”, they said, without accepting any responsibility for breaching this particular covenant on civil and political rights, while in fact the breaches are huge. Canada’s actions have been largely inadequate on issues as sexual orientation, gender identity and the protection of the LGBTI youth from suicide, homelessness and violence. Luckily, the reaction from civil society is very strong: lots of voices are asking our government to do more.

You are also involved in campaigns on public education: what is the attitude in schools towards the human rights of LGBTI people?

First of all we must consider that in Canada, when we speak about public education, we speak about a very long tradition of schools created during the second half of the Nineteenth century to educate the children of the workers: since then every single public official, including the prime minister, has always sent their children to public education schools. It is a unique system, a real investment in democracy.

There has been much work in the last 25 years on combating homophobia (and later transphobia) in schools: each one of the ten Canadians provinces has established policies of education that directly confront the issue, and children must be allowed to form gay-straight alliances.  In Ontario, the largest province of the federation, there is also a prevention curriculum, which now requires teachers to start talking with children from grade three about sexuality, and to begin making them familiar with terms which they would hear anyway on the school ground.

If there is such a strong focus on education, though, how come the LGBTI community is facing the backlash you described before?

The point is that these two aspects are related: some parents have united to try and take their children away from the health and sexuality instruction within the educational system because of the references to homosexuality. These movements are very strong, ethnically based and funded by the religious right and the conservative party who is in power on a federal level.

It is a battleground, for sure: activists and unions have been very clear about the need to keep these anti-homophobia policies and this curriculum. In Ontario we can also count on our premier, an out lesbian woman who was a public school trustee. Even though she has been hiding behind the austerity agenda on many other issues, she has been very firm about everything regarding education, and has provided the kind of leadership that leaders