Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Hate Crimes and Sexual Orientation

I was reviewing for a test on theories of discrimination and hate crimes in Canada with grade 12 students, and one review question was, "When was sexual orientation added to the list of identifiable groups in the hate propaganda legislation in Canada?"

And the answers I got started in the 60s - 1968, 1969...  Then another bunch tried the 1980s and early 90s.  One group guessed 2005, and they were off by one.  Being victimized due to sexual orientation has only been seen as a hate crime since April 29, 2004.  Almost 9 years ago.

My first reaction was that it's... sweet? innocent?... somehow endearing that they believe we've been on this for decades - for them to believe that the justice system cared about this section of the population for that long.  They just haven't lived long enough to remember how bad it really was.  And it's a good thing that question wasn't on the test!

I taught my first class in 1990, practice taught really - which is a strange term implying that nobody actually learned anything for real and evoking an image of me at the front of desks filled with various stuffed animals awaiting the lesson.  Weird.  Anyway, I taught a similar unit on theories of discrimination.

Going back a bit further, my friends and I had all just found out about AIDS in about 1983, when I was in high school myself, and I remember thinking it had to do with two penises being in close proximity because it seemed only gay men and prostitutes got it.  I made a mental note right then that three-ways were definitely out.

Then, seven short years later, after a world of knowledge and maturation in university arts classes where I met several openly gay men, I was finally in front of my first class of grade 11 kids studying social sciences.  I talked openly about the horrible discrimination some people face just because of who they find attractive.  I did the heterosexism quiz with them.  (When did you first realize you were straight?)  And then I asked them, in groups, to develop strategies for dealing with the discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And the strategy most of the kids thought was the best one possible?  (I actually dug out the practicum journal I had to write to make sure I wasn't exaggerating over time.)  In a thoughtful, adult voice, the group leader suggested,
We'll find an island somewhere and put them all on it.  And we'll give them anything they want there.  We'll make it really nice for them.  And we'll keep them all there where they can be happy.  People can visit them if they want visitors, but they'll have to wear surgical masks while they're there.  
It wasn't quite what I was going for.  At all.  But it opened the door for a discussion on apartheid and segregation policies in general.  But the thing is, they thought they were being really nice.  Because back in 1990, some people equated being gay with having the plague.  We were NOWHERE NEAR offering up legislation to protect "those people" from violence, abuse, discrimination, ostracism....  

I like the idea that it all happened way back, just after the civil rights movement.  It makes us seem like a nicer bunch.  But, in a way, there's something more to celebrate that it just happened 9 years ago because it's striking how quickly we can change for the better.   It's amazing how dramatically attitudes have changed in my classes over the last 23 years.

It ain't over though.  We can't just relax and think we're done.  It's equally amazing how little backlashes continue to erode this gain, and we have to keep reminding each other what's right.  But it's so much better than it was just a short time ago.

ETA - As much as some think Clinton's flip-flopping on that marriage act, it really was a very different time in 1996.  It may not be that he's just doing whatever's popular, but that he's doing what's right, and for him, that's changed over the last 18 years.  That change is a good thing!  We've got to celebrate the small victories.  Sometimes it's all we've got!  

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