'One big Positive Space': Transforming our culture

By Megan Hooper

Kat Ferguson and Sharp Dopler are just a generation apart, but their experiences as “out” members of the LGBTQ2 community could not have been more different.

Because of a superior officer’s homophobia, Sharp was subject to an unfounded military police investigation while working with the Cadet Instructors Cadre as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. The result was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the end of a military career that had been a major part of Sharp’s life and identity.

Kat Ferguson, on the other hand, was always surrounded by supportive family and friends and “was very lucky in the sense that I didn’t have to experience a lot of homophobia and other discrimination growing up.

“I think it speaks a little to how much our culture has changed just in the one generation.”

At a panel discussion in the context of Victims and Survivors of Crime Week on June 1, 2018, Kat and Sharp spoke about the week’s theme: “Transforming Our Culture Together.” The discussion was moderated by Peter Linkletter, the Executive Champion of the Federal Positive Space Initiative, and was attended by staff from CSC, the Parole Board of Canada, Justice Canada, and the National Office for Victims at Public Safety Canada.

Historically, many LGBTQ2 people in Canada have faced heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia at work and in their everyday lives. Many still do. As a testament to how the culture is now changing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology to Canada's LGBTQ2 public servants on November 28th, 2017, for the unjust and discriminatory way they were historically treated by the Government of Canada.

“This was a historic step in recognizing human rights,” said Linkletter, who went on to note that the Government of Canada has been taking other legislative action as well.

The Prime Minister’s apology took place six months after Bill C-16 received royal assent. The bill adds gender identity and expression as protected categories in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. More recently, Bill C-66 cleared the Senate and will soon become law. This bill will allow people who were convicted when homosexual acts were considered a crime to have their records expunged.

But, Peter asked, what have these changes meant to people from the community like Kat and Sharp, who are impacted by these laws?

“What happened to me happened after the Canadian Forces had officially changed their policy. So changing policy isn’t enough,” Sharp said. “Apologies are great things – but if they aren’t followed up by concrete action, what do they mean? Actions like positive spaces, like having dialogue, like figuring out what makes you uncomfortable. It’s OK to be uncomfortable with things you don’t know anything about – what’s not ok is using your discomfort to target somebody; what’s not ok is taking your discomfort out on someone else.”

For Kat, who had been lucky not to experience much discrimination in life, “the apology has just brought these issues more to light so that I can reflect on my community and my ‘elders,’ so to speak. And it has really opened up an opportunity for discussion. It’s easier for people to talk about it now that it’s been officially acknowledged. People are listening to the stories and are more willing to be allies.”

Sharp has seen positive change in our culture over the years.

“If you had told me in 1983 that I’d be able to marry my wife, that I’d be able to have jobs where I can be completely out about who I am, or that I’d be here talking about this, I’d have laughed in your face.”

Despite having encountered less discrimination in life than Sharp, Kat recognizes that LGBTQ2 people today still face safety concerns, homophobia and transphobia. Kat also realizes how much education still needs to happen, saying “You can say you’re an ally or you have lots of queer friends; but there’s still a lot of work to do to avoid things like micro-aggressions.”

Micro-aggressions are defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to people from marginalized groups.”

Both Kat and Sharp spoke about micro-aggressions they deal with every day, including misgendering, which means that people do things like call them by a pronoun they don’t identify with or challenge them about their choice of public bathroom.

Kat explained that people often make misguided comments to LGBTQ2 people like “I never would have believed you were born female” or “you are so beautiful for a trans woman,” thinking they are giving a compliment.

“In actual fact, it’s a big hit and you’re considering them lesser than other women or other men essentially by saying that,” Kat said. “Micro-aggressions are something that happens with the disabled community, people of colour, and Indigenous people. Stopping that would be helpful in making the workplace feel more comfortable and safe for all of us.”

Kat and Sharp both understand the importance of talking to people and sharing their experiences.

“We need to stop separating ourselves, because when we get down to it, we are so much more alike than we are different,” Sharp said. “And when we can sit with each other and share those stories and understand that, everything changes.”

They also feel that the Positive Space Initiative is giving people the opportunity to educate themselves and learn to be allies to the LGBTQ2 community. But, Kat pointed out, “we need to remember that being an ally isn’t an identity, it’s an action. It’s great to say ‘I don’t have any problem with you being gay, trans, whatever.’ But do you speak up when you hear transphobic comments or homophobic comments? Do you speak up when you hear someone make fun of someone in a wheelchair? Being an ally to people in marginalized communities is the goal here. Hopefully, one day we won’t need to have a Positive Space because the whole world will be one big positive space.”

If we want to change the culture, Kat said, we need to educate ourselves.

“Go online! Google is a fantastic way to learn. Just because we’re queer people doesn’t mean it’s our job to educate you. As much as I love doing it sometimes, it gets old really fast answering the same questions.”

People can use Google or YouTube to search for answers to their questions, Kat added. “Just listen to people’s experiences.”

Sharp agreed, adding: “If you aren’t exposed to something, you have no mechanism by which to understand, to get used to the idea. If it’s not part of your lived experience – it doesn’t matter if that experience is living with a disability, being an Indigenous person, being a person of colour, being male being female, if it’s not part of your experience, how can that resonate for you unless you take concrete steps to educate yourself?”

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