Pride in action: New website works to #ENDhatelaws

I hope to start this article off right, it's my first time writing an article on an issue other than my vibrant high school years. Toronto Pride is running from June 19 - 28. The sheer excitement has inspired me to delve into some key LGBT issues that'll be the talk of the town (not a small town that is), and a new online campaign to document and hopefully help end hate laws worldwide.

Celebrating our successes and solidarity

Let's start this off on a high note, MPP Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo passed Bill 77 and shared the great news at this year's 5th Annual INSPIRE Awards, which was celebrated at the University of Toronto's Hart House, May 29th of this year. Bill 77 was a bill she had hoped to pass before Pride. The anti-reparative therapy bill makes it illegal in Ontario to use conversion therapy to attempt to make an LGBT person straight or "heteronormative."

I hadn't been to Pride until last year. I had always been told that it wasn't an age appropriate event to attend. In defiance, I attended the parade and many community events. I'm proud to attend Pride again this year. I've learned that there is a Toronto naked bike ride that isn't covered nearly as much as Pride. If a naked bike ride isn't an issue, LGBT Pride shouldn't be either. We should have a say in what we do with our bodies. Interestingly enough, folks at Pride often are nude to stand in solidarity with those who've been beaten, or worst yet killed, at the height of the bathhouse riots. It is understood to be an act of civil disobedience which reflects upon an important turning point in LGBT history.

Pride reaching out to trans communities

As Trans Advocate Susan Gapka has said many times before, Pride is political. I was fortunate to be on the INSPIRE Awards float in the parade and see the crowds at Yonge who held their pride flags high.

I've started to count the days up to the Toronto Pride parade. This year, Pride may be the most inclusive event held in Toronto Pride history. Pride has taken steps to build a relationship and solidarity with the Trans community. Toronto Pride and Trans folks are engaging in discussions more actively than they have in previous years. Toronto Pride hopes to unite the Trans community at this year's Pride events to highlight the importance of Trans rights in Canada and abroad. A Trans community fair will be held this year, reaching out to great Trans resources.

Russia on our minds

Last year, Russia often led the conversation at Toronto Pride events. This year it seems they won't. Russia was set to host the Sochi Olympic Games ahead of the anticipated 2014 World Pride event. Putin would soon then be on the most controversial cover of the Advocate as "Person of the Year."

Many believed the 2014 Sochi Olympics would be boycotted, after Russia implemented an "anti-LGBT propaganda law" prior to the opening ceremony. The law prohibits the speech of LGBT inclusion. "The promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" is prohibited within Russia. The games however, did not face the expected boycott. We saw the boycott of Russian Vodka and Coca-Cola products. The athletes had devoted their lives to sport and would not give up their opportunity to compete for a gold medal.

LGBT athletes and allies chose instead to challenge Russia's law by wearing Pride colours, rainbow pins and speaking out to media who covered the games. They brought visibility to LGBT issues. Justin Romanov was one of a few Russian LGBT youth to flee the country and make Canada home following the passage of this law. Justin has told The Globe and Mail that he sees Canada as a "different world," a world which is inclusive of diversity -- a scene which he presumably hadn't seen in Russia. Justin is featured in a Hot Docs film, Children 404, which uncovers an online community for LGBT Russian youth, founded in the wake of the "anti-Gay law."

I believe the state sanctions which our governments have put in place against Russia have only increased due to the conflict in Ukraine. The sanctions did not rise due to the greater concern for LGBT folks' safety. The sanctions did not follow the brutality which many LGBT folks endured in Russia and endure today. Justin was taken to jail three consecutive times for speaking out for LGBT rights. Many wonder why it took an escalated conflict to raise the need for government sanctions when Russia was already impeding the rights of their LGBT citizens.

Putin's support of the "anti-LGBT propaganda law" set a campaign in motion from activists who wouldn't stand for today's hate laws. The group which unites them has been appropriately named #ENDhatelaws (#EHL). Formed by Jacqie Lucas and Andrea Houston, "#ENDhatelaws is a coalition of seasoned activists, journalists, health professionals, educators, artists, lawyers and students in partnership with advocacy organizations like the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Ryerson University and #TOwithRussia."

New way to #ENDhatelaws

I met with them at an old dumpling restaurant on Yonge Street. They had found a table at the far end of the room. Our server was the only person to interrupt us. Jacqie shared the idea of an interactive map, Andrea would then add "let's map the countries which criminalize LGBT folks." The ideas began to mesh.

The interactive #EHL map allows anonymous users to post their personal experiences on a map. Those experiences can then be linked to a chosen location. The map has been made available through Snaplas.com a start-up which uses open source code to build interactive maps such as this one. Bram Zeidenberg, the Co-Founder and COO of Snaplas is a supporter and member of the #EHL group.

When I recently asked Jacqie for their take on the new #EHL map, Jacqie echoed the other #EHL members "I really wanted a way to elevate the voices of the people who are affected. Why come to me and ask what's happening or what the laws are regarding LGBTIQ in Uganda when you can go on the map and learn from people who live there. Too often, as activists we end up speaking for these people and that's a huge problem. We have launched the map and it's ready for submissions. What we need now is to get the word out. The interactive part of the map makes learning easy and visual. I think the youth of today having access to it could bring them the knowledge about criminalization or celebration of LGBT in different regions that many of us didn't have access to. Knowledge is power. Acceptance is breaking down fear. We can defeat fear with education."

Today's map highlights over 80 countries which criminalize LGBTTIQQ2SPA+ folks. The 80 plus countries include Uganda, Nigeria and Russia.

The #EHL group states "There are currently more than 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality, including about half a dozen that call for the death penalty. We must build solidarity with LGBTQ community who are living under regressive laws and work with them to effect change. As we do this, we will continue to put pressure on political leaders in Canada who have the power to push for the laws to be repealed and human rights be respected.

To conclude, I'd like to invite you to read one of their experiences and or post your own at https://snaplas.com/m/ENDhatelaws

This piece was first edited by Elizabeth Littlejohn. If you liked what you read, engage with me on Twitter @KarasChrist or send me an email at info@christopherkaras.ca and let me know what I should write about next or give me much needed feedback for my next story. Hope to share great content with you again soon.

Karas first made headlines when he challenged his then French Catholic School Board, CSDCCS, Conseil Scolaire de District Catholique Centre-Sud and his school, École secondaire catholique Sainte-Famille at the Human Rights Tribunal when he had wanted to put up posters of his civil rights rights hero Harvey Milk and build a Gay-Straight Alliance. He had been first heard at Xtra! and would then be featured at the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Thomson Reuters, CBC and would garner national and international press. Karas representative Jean-Alexandre De Bousquet a Human Rights attorney would file the suit v. the school board CSDCCS and the school at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario after the Gay-Straight Alliance had been allegedly barred and posters of Harvey Milk allegedly taken down. To learn more please follow the following link www.christopherkaras.ca

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