Reflections from our Climate and Social Justice Campaigner, Chris Kruszewski
Last month and this month, there were protests and counter-protests across the country around gender and sexual diversity being taught in classrooms. I attended the counter-protest in Edmonton, standing alongside other queer folks and allies in support of creating safe spaces for queer kids in schools. While counter-protests across the country were overwhelmingly better attended than the protests, that was not the case in Alberta.
It’s hard to paint a picture of what it was like being at that counter-protest. There was a sign in the protesting crowd that said, “This isn’t about hate,” but there were a group of teenage boys directly across from us who were telling us to “kill yourself, faggots.” Another woman was dancing back and forth, pointing at us, and pretending to throw up while carrying a sign that said something about the danger of gender confusion and that LGBT was not love. The cops keeping our groups apart looked on while a woman from our counter-protest tried to leave and was surrounded by a crowd of angry men and women screaming at her while she cried out her hurt. All of this, backgrounded by chants of “Love, not hate!” and “Protect Trans kids” from us counter-protestors.
After the counter-protest, I went over to my best friend’s house and sobbed at their counter, trying to process what we had just experienced. In response, my friend shared an interaction that I had missed. Two teenage boys were being awful across from them, and one of the men holding our line kept yelling back, “Who taught you how to hate?” One of the boys laughed the question off, but his friend couldn’t respond. He couldn’t do anything but look sad and uncertain.
I’ve thought a lot about that day of protests and counter-protests in the context of that moment, that question, and the uncertainty of that boy’s response. There’s no doubt that some members of the opposite crowd showed up because they are bigots who want to see me and my community dead. But I find it hard to believe that all those parents and children and community members were driven by the same hatred. The binary between love and hate is too simple to explain what was going on.
I think we were all there that day for a different reason: fear.
Queer folks have good reason to be afraid and to show up in big numbers to protect and love each other, even using our bodies as a means of resistance. I, and many people that I love, have had experiences to justify that fear.
I think the parents in the other crowd are driven by fear too. We live in a scary, hard world. The climate is changing, it’s getting increasingly difficult to afford food and housing and transportation, and we are constantly bombarded from every angle and platform about how life is getting harder, scarier, and less secure.
We’re all scared, and we’re doing our best to pretend we aren’t, to keep on going. But it’s hard not to be afraid of things we have little control over, that feel much bigger than us. Being offered control in some small way, in a way that speaks to an easier, better, safer future, becomes a hard offer to refuse.
For queer folks, we find those promises within ourselves – from building communities and safe spaces with each other. And for those parents in the other crowd? I can understand how control over what their children are learning about themselves and the world could also feel like an alluring promise of safety.
“Who taught you how to hate?” is a good question. But the logical next question, perhaps even more important, would be: who benefits when we are afraid enough to hate?
Those with power and wealth are the ones who have taught us how to hate, because by pitting us against one another they hope that they can divert and distract us from what really matters.
The problem we’re really facing isn’t the queer kids who are grappling with their identities and how they fit into this world. Nor is it the parents who are scared and uncertain about their children’s futures. It’s politicians who divide and deflect so they can further cement their political power and that of the wealthy interests they represent. The problem is a system that values the profits of a few over the rights, dignity, and lives of the many.
We’ve all been taught how to respond to fear, and in a lot of cases, it means hating people who don’t look like us or think like us. When we are angry and fearful of each other, we cannot build the trust and relationships necessary to know that we have shared values and battles. We can’t muster up enough energy or power to push back against the decimation of the public services we rely on, against corporate greed, against the very things that are making this world so hard and scary and unsafe.
We are not at our best when we allow ourselves to be guided by our fear, which leads to what feels like the most important question: how do we help each other become less afraid? How do we make it easier to love each other than blame each other for circumstances that have been created by people who hold the most power and wealth?
Last month’s protests were a chilling moment, but they were just a glimpse of what is to come. The Governments of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have already been weaponizing fears to change their educational policy around queer and trans students. And in the coming months, we are going to see more and more policies that will make this world even less safe and less hospitable: further attempts at healthcare privatization, more attacks on our education systems, more racism and sexism and trans- and homophobia.
If we fall for their ongoing attempts to spew hatred and division, we all lose. Instead, I think we can draw important lessons from the long history of queer resistance.
Queer folks have long sought safety in community and found some measure of safety in standing together. Even at last month’s protests, I got to witness and participate in many moments of solidarity and care. People checked in and took care of complete strangers, tried to choose kindness and conversation, and stood together for something important in the face of a constant barrage of fear. In those moments, it felt possible to turn our feelings of hatred and fear back at the systems that hurt us and direct curiosity and compassion at each other instead.
In this moment, I invite us all to do two things in that spirit of helping each other become less afraid. They’re not easy, but they’re important. Firstly, have the hard conversations with your friends and family members who express views that put the safety of queer people at risk. And secondly, when you do have those conversations, try and let curiosity lead. Open-ended questions are a good way to get at the emotions (especially fear) that motivate beliefs, and digging into common feelings is the best way to unearth common ground.
To clarify, I’m not advocating that people put themselves in danger to build common ground. Walking away or disengaging is a very valid decision in unsafe situations. But our relationships with people are a starting point for finding common ground, even when we disagree.
We can choose to have hard conversations that are motivated by curiosity and compassion, rather than fear or anger– especially so for those of us who are not part of communities that are being targeted right now.
Cultivating these skills is not only beneficial now, but every time we discuss building a society and a world where we are all cared for. We’ve seen many moments of hateful and divisive discourse over the last few years, from “Freedom Convoy” organizers tapping into people’s anger about our government’s inadequate pandemic response, to politicians and corporations fearmongering around ending our dependence on fossil fuels, to rhetoric blaming immigrants rather than landlords and private business interests for the housing crisis. Patience, trust, and relationships are crucial as we turn from fearing and fighting each other toward ending the systems and people who benefit from our fear.
So, let’s get to work.