Reading Collection Canada 2009: A Yearbook of Canadian Stamps a few days ago, I saw "...a set of commemorative domestic rate stamps...issued on February 2, 2009, to celebrate Black History Month and to pay tribute to two pioneering figures in African-Canadian history--Rosemary Brown and Abraham Doras Shadd [p. 33)."
Not intending to take away anything from Shadd* and Brown**, two deserving Black Canadians--as I learned from reading the material in the yearbook--I couldn't help but wonder if or when we Canadian gay men and lesbian women would find our own honored in the same way. Surely, there must be pioneering figures in our country's past who, in their own way, fought tirelessly for the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians in our history.
But who are they? Over the past several days, I've struggled to think of even one person, a single name, who could be considered on a par with Shadd and Brown. I've googled "gay Canadian heroes" and discovered extensive alphabetical lists of people from countries around the world, including Canada, who are gay and lesbian, well-known or otherwise, and who may have played a role in helping us get to where we are today. But do we have any unequivocal, upstanding figures like Abraham Doras Shadd and Rosemary Brown? Unfortunately, none that I'm aware of.
I think the nature of being gay plays a large part in this. Shadd and Brown were obviously black and couldn't escape that fact, putting them in a position of being discriminated against when they knew it was fundamentally wrong and were compelled to do something about it. Does the fact that our kind were more or less able to hide their sexual orientation throughout history account for turning us into cowards when it came to openly fighting for our rights? I think so. It's difficult to be a gay Canadian pioneering figure, at any time in our history, when you're not openly gay and can't stand up for your own rights, let alone those of your brothers and sisters.
Here's the problem that I have with all this. Despite the various reasons why Black people have been discriminated against historically, the bottom line is that I think most of us now realize Black people are like everyone else. The only difference between them and other races is the color of their skin. We get that now, although I know the journey to that truth was long and tough. Nobody can say that Black people haven't been through hell trying to secure their basic human rights, which they are clearly entitled to.
But so are gays and lesbians. The problem with ensuring the same human rights for us is that people get hung up on the whole sex thing--when sex is but a small part of who we are. As I've written before, homosexuality is a moral issue for many people, especially those who take a literal reading of the Bible and believe with all their hearts that God didn't intend for men to lay with men or women to lay with women. Many people can't separate in their minds their moral position on homosexuality and the basic human rights all people are entitled to, regardless of their sexual orientation. Just because you don't agree with one being gay doesn't mean he or she isn't entitled to the same human rights you have.
Would we have more gay and lesbian heroes today if homosexuality wasn't so repugnant in the eyes of many, in a way that being Black shouldn't have been either? Absolutely. I don't doubt it for a minute. It's a lot easier to fight on behalf of a discriminated segment of our society when you can openly be who you are, or have no choice but to be who you are, and when you can actively take up the cause for many who face the same unjust or prejudicial treatment based on something over which they have no control.
You know who I think our gay and lesbian heroes were? They were people just like you and me, who, over the decades, tried to be good human beings, lived their lives in an upstanding way, and set an example of what being gay and lesbian was really like. Today, we are where we are, with a far greater understanding in the general population of what it means to be homosexual, because ordinary citizens, despite the enormous personal risk, stood up for themselves when they had to and fought for their own rights, and the rights of all of us in the process.
So, in the future, if we ever get our own stamp to commemorate where we've been and what we've been through, as I believe we should, the image captured could be one of two things: Either the picture of one gay man or one lesbian woman who, in his or her anonymity, represents the face of gay Canada in general, demonstrating the strength of character and the persistence of spirit we've exhibited to get to where we are; or the picture of a crowd of gay and lesbian people, who, in their number, represent the diversity within our own community and the common dignity we all share.
Any way you look at it, our battle has been no less challenging than the battles other minorities have endured throughout the years. We may not have "pioneering figures" in the same way that Black Canadians do, but that by no means suggests our struggle has been any less difficult or worth fighting. Perhaps the day will come when two gay Canadian men, in a loving and committed relationship for fifty or sixty years, are looked at in the same way as a bi-racial couple in the '60s fighting for the right not only to be together but to get married. In my mind, the achievement in both cases is deserving of respect and recognition.
*Abraham Doras Shadd (1801-1882) was '...a "stationmaster" and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, providing escaping slaves with food, shelter and guidance on their way to their new life in Canada [Yearbook, p. 30].'
**Rosemary Brown (1930-2003) "...fought for the rights of both women and minorities throughout her life and career [Yearbook, p. 32]."
(If you can think of a Canadian gay man or lesbian woman, past or present, whose accomplishment in the area of human rights is on a par with Shadd or Brown, and who you believe should be honored on a commemorative stamp, please leave a comment. Who do you believe our pioneering figures are?)