Five years after the 1987 Yukon Human Rights Act protected lesbians and gay men from discrimination, it was still hard to find Yukoners willing to come out publicly.
CBC North broadcast a short documentary that year called Gay in the North, which explored why there was still a climate of fear.
Helen Fallding co-founded Yukon’s first gay organization in 1990 but she’s now manager of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba. In a Nov. 7, 2018, seminar at Robson Hall, she talked about lessons learned during the early years of gay organizing in a small community.
Similar to the Manitoba experience described in Valerie Korinek’s Prairie Fairies, threats and violence escalated in the wake of increased queer visibility and educational efforts that would be considered innocuous by current standards. Closeted people afraid of that backlash argued over strategy with activists impatient with working quietly for change. The anti-gay movement was organized largely by fundamentalist churches fighting for the souls of gay youth.
Queer Yukon president Stephanie Hammond explained how religious battles over gay youth surfaced again in Whitehorse only five years ago when publicly funded Vanier Catholic Secondary School adopted a policy that described same-sex attraction as an “intrinsic moral evil.” A lesbian student at the school had her locker defaced with a homophobic slur but students fought back by wearing rainbow socks to their graduation ceremony.
Hammond and a friend started a summer solstice pride parade, dubbed 24 Hours of Gaylight, to show the students more support. To her surprise, about 400 people walked in the first parade – enough to fill Whitehorse’s main street end to end. The United Church is an enthusiastic partner.
Despite its isolation, Yukon was among the first jurisdictions in Canada to win some legal protections for queer people.
Fallding slides, Hammond slides
Has Vanier school changed its policy?
The school is now required to follow the Yukon government policy of providing a safe and inclusive learning environment but continues to hire only Catholic teachers. This is allowed in Canada when an institution exists primarily to serve a faith community, law Prof. Karen Busby said. Public funding for Catholic schools is constitutionally protected in some provinces but not in the Yukon.
What’s next for Yukon queers?
Trying to establish a space to gather, perhaps in partnership with another organization. Getting access to newer HIV prevention medication such as PrEP. Access to physical and mental health services through Trans Care BC.
Hammond’s participation was supported by the University of Manitoba’s Women’s and Gender Studies program and the Margaret Laurence Endowment Fund.
Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.