Canada's LGBTQ2 specialist speaks in SF

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday April 4, 2018
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Randy Boissonnault, Canadian member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, Alberta, and the special adviser to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 issues, speaks at the Western Business Alliance LGBT Economic Summit in San Francisco March 16. Photo: Heather Cassell
Randy Boissonnault, Canadian member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, Alberta, and the special adviser to the Prime Minister on LGBTQ2 issues, speaks at the Western Business Alliance LGBT Economic Summit in San Francisco March 16. Photo: Heather Cassell

Canada's LGBTQ2 Specialist Randy Boissonnault spoke about his country's challenges at the recent Western Business Alliance LGBT Economic Summit in San Francisco.

Boissonnault, 47, became the first openly gay elected member of Canada's Parliament from Edmonton Centre in Alberta in October 2015. About a year later, he was appointed to the newly created LGBTQ2 specialist position by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He was given a $3 million budget, reported the Ottawa Citizen.

In 2017, Trudeau stood before the House of Commons in Ottawa and made a historic apology to LGBT Canadians who suffered during the country's so-called gay purge during the Cold War. Boissonnault was by Trudeau's side when he announced reparations of $85 million and would expunge the criminal records of nearly 9,000 LGBT Canadians.

"This is a very dark part of Canadian history," said Boissonnault at the San Francisco summit, which was organized by the Golden Gate Business Association. "We had to apologize." He added that the single remaining anti-sodomy law on the books in Canada is expected to be repealed later this year.

The apology was the first part of his mandate as Canada's LGBTQ2 expert, he said. It had to be done right, "because it doesn't do any good to apologize if the apology isn't accepted and it isn't accepted broadly. That was really important," said Boissonnault, noting that it was the "largest LGBTQ2 class action settlement in the world."

He said the balance of funds that don't get distributed to individuals will remain in the LGBT community for educational programs, "to let future generations know what happened."

Taking the global stage

The Rhodes scholar spoke with the Bay Area Reporter following the March 16 summit. He expanded on his onstage discussion with gay San Francisco mayoral candidate Mark Leno, where he spoke about his role and vision being Canada's LGBTQ2 specialist, the work that Canada still needs to do on behalf of its LGBT citizens, his international work for LGBT rights and the country's message to the world, and what he hopes to accomplish. (The "@" in his title stands for two spirit.)

Speaking with Leno, he joked that Canada's immigration is open, but last year Canada took a risk resettling some LGBT Chechen refugees. The B.A.R. asked him about working with the Rainbow Railroad to help some Chechens emigrate, putting the country's relationship with Russia in a precarious position.

Boissonnault acknowledged that the Rainbow Railroad does have special status to work on LGBT issues with the Canadian government, but without going into any details, he said, "It's really important to understand ... that there is no mechanism for countries to use when we're talking about internally displaced persons."

He doesn't generally speak about Canada's projects around the world for safety reasons. However, his office works with the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the Rainbow Railroad once an individual gains refugee status, he told the B.AR.

"It's important for us to find homes for marginalized people," he said, speaking about how Canada works with certain allied countries to aid asylum seekers and refugees.

Boissonnault said that within Canada's borders, the country recently revised its immigration guidelines with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada so it's no longer appropriate to ask about intimate details about someone's sexual orientation or gender identity to prove they are LGBT, he said. His office is also working to help LGBT refugees integrate into Canadian society by setting up a network. Providing an example, he talked about Queer Muslims United, a Middle Eastern LGBT refugee group. The group organizes a successful monthly social dinner in Ottawa. It is now looking to expand to Toronto, he said.

Canada is positioning itself to take a bigger role on the global stage when it comes to LGBT rights.

"We come to the international stage with a lot of humility," said Boissonnault. Considering that not every country approaches human rights like Canada does, he recognizes that while doing the work, "we also can't be preachy."

Boissonnault is currently co-chairing the Equal Rights Coalition with Chile. Earlier this year, he met with his French counterpart Frederic Potier, who is head of the interministerial delegation to fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia; Canada is one of the nine members of the Organization of the Americas States core group, and at the United Nations he's working to have Canada join the LGBT core group, he said.

The coalition was formed at the Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay in 2016. Representatives of 35-member nations of the ERC and civil society groups will gather in Vancouver for a conference August 6-8.

Boissonnault added that Canada is being progressively thoughtful about gender policies, which includes LGBT rights, he said.

"Every time you hear about Canada talking about feminist international development policy or a feminist budget, which we just passed, we mean gender equality in the largest sense," he said, noting that the gender policy wasn't just to empower women, but includes LGBT, intersex, and nonbinary gender individuals.

The funding also includes women's and HIV/AIDS organizations, and he pointed out that due to the situation in many countries, LGBT organizations aren't possible, so feminist and HIV/AIDS organizations often operate as de-facto queer organizations.

"The more that we are able to support women's civil society organizations around the world, the more we're also helping the LGBTQ2 movement indirectly and directly," he said. "Last year alone we gave out about $750,000 to LGBTI groups on the ground through our missions around the world and I'm anticipating for that to grow."

Gazing inward

Looking inward, Boissonnault, who keeps a close eye on LGBT leaders in the United States, noted that like the U.S., Canada is wrestling with many issues, such as homeless LGBT youth, LGBT seniors going back into the closet after retirement, and discrimination against transgender people and people of color.

He said that 80 percent of his position is to focus on LGBT Canadian citizens and 20 percent of his work is focused on international LGBT issues.

"I don't know what the hell is wrong with parents that throw their kids out when they come out," Boissonnault told the San Francisco audience, speaking about homeless LGBT youth, which makes up an estimated 20 percent of Canada's homeless youth population, according to Canada's Homeless Hub website.

"I can tell you, if my partner stayed with me long enough to have kids, when they grow up to be wonderful young adults ... that will not happen. We will not kick our kids out of the house for growing up straight," he quipped to audience laughter and applause.

"In some respects, the government is doing things that maybe a lot of people wouldn't have expected us to do," said Boissonnault, pointing to the apology, passage of transgender rights, and other recent policies.

He also wants to create Canada's version of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, to get more out elected LGBT leaders in government.

When the B.A.R. asked about how Canada's LGBT efforts have been affected by President Donald Trump and his recent nomination of anti-LGBT Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, Boissonnault responded diplomatically.

"Relationships for us are really important and the U.S. is our largest customer," said Boissonnault, noting the two countries' strong relationship that has continued with the current U.S. administration.

Costa Rica gets pro-LGBT president

Politics was unusually edgy following Costa Rica's February 4 election that resulted in an April 1 runoff between two candidates who were polar opposites: a pro-LGBT candidate and a conservative evangelical candidate.

The runoff campaign centered on same-sex marriage.

The center-left's Carlos Alvarado Quesada, 38, the pro-LGBT candidate, won with 60.79 percent of the vote.

The election also saw victory for Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr, 54, the first vice president of African descent for Costa Rica and in Latin America.

Alvarado Quesada's opponent, evangelical TV personality turned presidential candidate Fabricio Alvarado, (no relation) received 39.21 percent of the vote.

Alvarado Quesada and Campbell Barr will be sworn into office May 8.

Alvarado Quesada will be tasked with fixing Costa Rica's public finances crisis, which threatens to raise the fiscal deficit from 6.1 percent to 8 percent of the gross domestic product in 2019.

Socially, he will also face bringing a divided country together following contentious debates around same-sex marriage, abortion, sex education, and Costa Rica's role in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that polarized the country during the runoff, reported Q Costa Rica.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell or [email protected].