Education effort isn't over for rural LGBTQ+ communities in fight against hate

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More education among children and youth on diversity and inclusivity is needed to help combat hate, LGBTQ+ advocates say, following a rise in incidents involving theft and vandalism of Pride flags in rural Southwestern Ontario.

“Hate crimes are becoming more and more prevalent,” said Martin Withenshaw, treasurer and co-founder of the Rainbow Optimist Club of Southwestern Ontario, the service club’s first LGBTQ+-focused chapter in the world.

“And it’s not the schools teaching (that behaviour). It’s coming from the home," he said. “The children are being taught one thing (at school), but the home is teaching them something else. It’s the job of the community to stand up (and address the behaviour). Education is absolutely critical.”

In 2019, police in Canada reported 263 hate crimes targeting sexual orientation, a 41 per cent increase from the year prior.

Conversations about acceptance and understanding are at the core of Pride Understanding, said Paula Jesty, who founded the initiative in 2017 in partnership with Thames Valley District school board and LGBTQ+ experts. It offers communication tools to schools, families and caregivers to increase gender diversity literacy.

“The idea was, if we created resources that helped families start early conversations, that would lead to a better understanding and hopefully, decrease bias that leads to hate,” she said.

Videos created by Pride Understanding focus on themes of love and acceptance, transgender identities, same-sex marriage, allyship and pronouns.

While many kids and youth already use gender-inclusive language, ongoing discrimination and hate speech toward the LGBTQ+ community suggest such conversations need to continue, Jesty said, recalling a discussion she had with her eldest daughter.

“(My daughter) said to me: ‘Why are you creating these resources?' Because from her standpoint,” Jesty explained, “she had friends of every walk of the rainbow. There was not an issue anymore.”

Jesty said her response was: “We got to continue to have this conversation, or we’re going to go backwards. And it just seems like in the last two years, that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Homophobic attacks and anti-LGBTQ+ incidents in Southwestern Ontario have been frequent throughout June — also known as Pride month — in small, rural communities.

A 2021 report from the advocacy group Egale Canada points out this situation, saying, "The usage of directly hostile homophobic language is more frequent in smaller communities (small cities, towns, and rural/remote areas) than in larger communities (larger cities and suburban areas)."

Last Tuesday, Kelly Spencer arrived at her business in Tillsonburg to discover the Pride flags hung outside her business were slashed and defaced, and a threatening note consisting of “awful homophobic slurs” was left behind, she said. Oxford OPP are investigating.

That same day, provincial police from Wellington and Perth counties said they were probing “a rash of mischiefs” in the townships of Mapleton, North Perth and Minto after Pride decorations were destroyed at schools, on streets and at a business between June 1 and June 13.

Several Pride flags were also vandalized or stolen in Norwich in late May. A 16-year-old from Norwich and a 47-year-old Tillsonburg man each face charges of theft under $5,000. Oxford OPP continues to investigate that incident and another in the town of Ingersoll, where a rainbow crosswalk was defaced on May 28.

Jesty said she, too, has increasingly become subject to “hateful messages,” estimating she receives about 10 each day. “When we first came out with the resources, we certainly received our share. But this time around, it’s nastier.”

Still, she indicated her organization — and more broadly, the LGBTQ+ community — has made strides in the push for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Whenever we take this work into rural communities to start conversations, much like drag queen story time, they’re successful. I constantly hear, ‘If only I’d known.’ Or parents saying: ‘I don’t know how to start these conversations, but the videos are helping.’ ”

Withenshaw, whose Optimist Club helps run drag queen story time for kids across the region, echoed that experience, adding that one way people can become better allies to LGBTQ+ people is by supporting these events.

“They can come out and support the events that Pride organizations are putting on, support the drag (queens),” he said. “If you know someone is part of the community, ask them what they want.”

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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