Human rights

Fight not over

Canada's first LGBTQ2 advisor Randy Boissonnault opens up about his personal journey

Canada’s first LGBTQ2 advisor talks gay rights and his personal journey

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault as the federal government’s first-ever special advisor on LGBTQ2 issues.

He sat down with VICE News to discuss the new role, and how he hopes to tackle issues affecting the LGBTQ2 community in Canada right now, like the trans rights bill and the ban on gay men donating blood.

Randy Boissonnault: You’re with VICE. Do you ever watch Gaycation? Ellen Page is one of my heros.

Rachel Browne: Oh yeah?

Absolutely. You know, because I like her work and she’s just very real. So she comes across that way, even in the documentary. I think there needs to be more LGBTQ2 stories being told. What’s it like being in a remote Indigenous community and being two-spirited? The only way you get there is by plane, and if your community doesn’t accept you, what do you do? How do you overcome that? Part of my role is to capture those stories.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do?

A couple of the issues we’re looking at is how do we get gender markers on government IDs. Also C-16, the bill on trans rights, we have to get it over the goal line, through the Senate. Then we have to address the wrongs of the past.

I was disappointed with the blood ban going from five years to one, instead of five to zero. So we have work to do on that also. The minister of health has given $3 million to do additional research in this space.

As a gay man, I can’t give blood. I’d have to wait a year.

MP Randy Boissonnault is interviewed by Rachel Browne on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 17, 2016. (Photo by David Kawai)
Photo by David Kawai/VICE News

Well the Liberals broke their promise of getting rid of the blood ban for gay men and now they’ve turned around and made it so they have to be celibate for one year in order to donate blood. This isn’t based on any scientific evidence, so why throw more money at it and have a policy that stigmatizes gay men?

Look, there are things you might want to do in government right away, but you have third-party organizations that are set up for reasons to be at arm’s length of the government so that they can exist to carry out their duties for Canadians, independently. So, we are doing what we need to do, and in my role as a coordinator, it’s also about poking and prodding and making sure that things get done in a timely fashion. And I can tell you I’ve already spoken to the minister of health on this matter and she is working with her team on this very issue.

You’re one of the only openly gay politicians in Canada, and the only one from Alberta, what has that journey looked like?

I knew I was gay at 21. But I kept myself in the closet until I was 28. This was in the 1990s. In Alberta, ok? So I left and went to England to study at Oxford and even then, was deeply closeted. And the LGBTQ group who met at Oxford was at my college. And every Thursday once a month when they met, I’d be as far away from college as I could be. Because I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want anyone to know my secret. If I was anywhere near it, someone might find out. And then I wouldn’t be loved, my career would change, I probably would never be able to run for office because there were no openly gay politicians anywhere at the time. I had to grieve my future, because I just didn’t know what was going to happen.

There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that goes with that.

It’s horrible. I spent 20 to 30 percent of my brain space, even while I was at Oxford, pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. And it was when I would get run down, have a whole bunch of exams, you just get to the point where sometimes you don’t want to be social, because you know you just can’t keep up the mask. And you don’t want anyone to have secretive power over you. And this is something the government did in the past. They said I think it’s time you leave public office, because we know the truth. That threat of blackmail. And you worry that your friends will abandon you, that your family will, and you’ll feel alone. Well now, look how much society has changed.

Is there something that made you feel like the Canadian parliament can be a welcoming and inclusive space for LGBTQ politicians?

I was really heartbroken and distraught by the 49 people we lost during the Orlando nightclub shooting in June. I haven’t felt that horrible inside since 9/11. And I shared that with my caucus colleagues and made an emotional plea that we had to reach out to our LGBTQ2 communities, and those in minority communities, because they were doubly vulnerable. And the reason this was so violating is because it happened in a place that’s like sanctuary. In the following weeks, my straight colleagues went out and showed solidarity at gay clubs in their ridings to show they cared. That was pretty cool.

MP Randy Boissonnault is interviewed by Rachel Browne on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Nov. 17, 2016. (Photo by David Kawai)
Photo by David Kawai/VICE News

Speaking of the US, the election of Donald Trump as president has worried many LGBT people there about the future of their rights and the great strides they’ve made in recent years.

One of the things I would say to any LGBTQ person around the world is find allies, reach out. Here in Canada, we are going to do our best to make sure that human rights are extended to all Canadians. And we’re going to be very open-minded and work in partnership with civil society organizations and individuals around the world so we can push this movement forward.

What about Canadian MPs like Brad Trost who’s vying for Conservative leadership and wants to reopen the debate on same-sex marriage in Canada because he opposes it.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental Charter value. It’s important. We don’t tolerate hate speech. This is what a pluralistic society is. I might not like what certain political actors say or espouse, and that’s why I’m going to make sure and our government is going to make sure that we have a conversation that shares what we think Canadian values are. And the law of the land, is the law of the land. As we saw in this last election, Canadians voted overwhelmingly and gave us a majority because we repudiated the politics of division. And this role is an example of making people feel valued and welcome.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Cover: Photo by David Kawai/VICE News

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