Wilbur Turner has witnessed his fair share of hate since he came out as a queer man 27 years ago in Alberta.
He’s seen it from pockets of the Christian right and from the then-Progressive Conservative government in his home province when it opposed same-sex marriage in the mid-2000s.
In the years since, documented attacks against the LGBTQ community have ebbed and flowed and moved from mostly behind closed doors to public spaces like schools and libraries.
Turner, the founder of LGBTQ rights group Advocacy Canada, said recent events in Canada have been largely influenced by what’s been happening south of the border.
“It is pretty well organized. There’s quite a number of different groups that have popped up across Canada that are fuelling this,” he said from his home in Kelowna, B.C.
“It’s really based in Christian nationalism.”
Bearing the brunt of the attacks are transgender, non-binary and racialized people in the queer community, advocates say.
A new wave of anti-LGBTQ measures began building in the U.S. in 2020, when Idaho enacted the country’s first law barring transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports.
Lawmakers around the U.S. have introduced or passed hundreds of bills this year that whittle away at LGBTQ rights.
“Once one government starts to roll back rights and protections, it emboldens others to follow suit,” said Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair for the public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth.
The New Brunswick government has come under fire for policy changes that no longer require teachers to use preferred names or pronouns for transgender and non-binary students under 16.
A more diverse society, as well as a general misunderstanding of gender expression and identity, has led to backlash in the U.S. and Canada, Wells said.
“People see a world that’s changing around them that doesn’t look like it did when they were younger,” Wells said. “(They’re) targeting and scapegoating minorities.”
LGBTQ events, like drag queen story times at libraries, have been going on for at least a decade without any “fanfare or incidents,” Wells said, but recent backlash has cancelled some events across North America.
“It’s concerning that we’re seeing all of these attacks come back with new language and a new tactic. It’s not ‘pedophile’ anymore, it’s ‘groomer.'”
Police believe a triple stabbing during a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo, west of Toronto, earlier this week was “a planned and targeted attack motivated by hate related to gender expression and gender identity.”
Three people were injured and a recently graduated international student faces multiple charges, including assault.
Earlier this month, a man at a school track meet in Kelowna made headlines for wrongly suggesting a nine-year-old girl was transgender and demanding proof she was born biologically female. The girl’s mother said a woman who was with the man accused her of being a “groomer” and “genital mutilator.”
Turner, who is friends with the family, said the use of this harmful rhetoric has increased since the province introduced resources for teachers to include sexual orientation and gender identity education in their classrooms.
“It’s really hard to see when it’s happening and impacting children because they are the ones who don’t know what this is about. They don’t understand that they are not equipped to deal with the trauma around (these attacks),” said Turner.
Anti-LGBTQ protesters are claiming to protect children by calling for book bans, but advocates say youth are the ones harmed when books about sexual orientation and gender expression are removed.
The Brandon School Division in Manitoba voted down a book ban last month after receiving a request to create a committee to ban certain books with LGBTQ topics from school libraries.
“It’s important to have comprehensive sexual education in our schools because not only does it give (youth) a sense of identity, it also empowers them to make better decisions,” said Marshall Morrisseau, a program facilitator with the Sexuality Education Resource Centre’s Brandon office.
Calls to ban books with LGBTQ subject matter have been popping up in other parts of Manitoba, including in rural and religious communities.
A delegation asked city council in Winkler to stop funding a library until certain books that touch on sexuality and LGBTQ issues are removed so they can’t be viewed by children.
“There are definitely people here who see what’s happening in the States and think we can do that here,” said Peter Wohlgemut, president of Pembina Valley Pride, which oversees Pride events in 14 southern Manitoba communities, including Winkler.
“It has really gotten people to realize this battle isn’t over. There are still people who want to exclude us from the community.”
Recent attacks have prompted a show of support from allies of the LGBTQ community. Pride celebrations across the country have seen record numbers.
Some places in the U.S. are also pushing back. Michigan lawmakers recently gave final approval to legislation banning conversion therapy for minors as Democrats in the state continue to advance a pro-LGBTQ agenda.
In Brandon, a crowd of supporters showed up at the school division meeting to express outrage at calls to ban books.
“It set a standard in the community that we are inclusive,” Morrisseau said. “We are a diverse community, and we’re working toward making it safe for everyone.”
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press
— With files from The Associated Press.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2023.