Architect Antoine Predock chose translucent white alabaster for the ramps in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Backlit with LED lighting, the ramps take visitors through galleries on a literal journey to light through darkness, meant to symbolize travelling towards hope and optimism. Hope and optimism following yesterday’s struggles, but also in the face of present day human rights battles.
There is a lot of content that reflects our community.
Among the struggles represented in the museum are those of leaders in GLBT* rights. Armando Perla, one of six CMHR researchers, was involved in curating most of the GLBT* content included in various galleries, which are divided into themes as opposed to groups of people. “We are pretty good in LGBT content. I think there is a lot of content that reflects our community.”
Perla says that if it was solely up to him, there would be more GLBT* content, but that this could be said of all topics within the galleries. Input into which stories to portray was decided through public consultations in 20 Canadian cities, stakeholders (activists advancing human rights) and the museum’s own research.
Depicted in the various galleries are stories of heroic acts against homophobia, such as the one by Jamaican-born gay rights activist Gareth Henry. Now living in Toronto, he risked his life to support individuals threatened by homophobia and those living with AIDS in both Jamaica and Canada.
He was the target of violent attacks by police for his role as a rights defender for GLBT* people in Jamaica. Henry made international headlines in 2007 when he was beaten by police after being cornered by a mob of 200. He eventually fled to Canada where he was granted asylum.
Harsh oppression for GLBT* people continues to exist in Iran, as it does in Jamaica. Featured in both the Canadian Journeys and Turning Points for Humanity galleries is Arsham Parsi, an Iranian GLBT* human rights activist and founder of the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). IRQR is an international organization based in Toronto that helps GLBT* Iranian refugees to obtain asylum status in safe countries.
Other local and national GLBT* gallery stories include the story of teenager Rebekah Enns, who formed a Gay-Straight Alliance in her religious school in 2011. Enns is also the first Sybil Shack Human Rights Youth Award recipient to be recognized for addressing the issue of homophobia.
No museum depicting gay rights would be complete without mention of early years activists Richard North and Chris Vogel. Their crusade in Canada to obtain same-sex spousal benefits and their success in fighting for marriage equality make them living legends. One of the gallery’s story niches is devoted to same-sex marriage and features many wedding pictures, including some from North and Vogel.
Though their same-sex victories have benefited those in the GLBT* community, North and Vogel’s own marriage in 1974 has been refused registration by the province. “Our marriage in 1974 was in complete accordance with the relevant legislation (the Manitoba Marriage Act which did not specify the participants’ gender). The Unitarian Universalist Church, where the marriage was performed, issued their usual certificate of marriage, which is part of the exhibit at the CMHR,” said Vogel.
When the museum put out a call for same-sex marriage photos, longtime couple Ken Delisle and John Robertson, both former Roman Catholics who were subsequently ordained as United Church ministers, submitted their photo, mentioning that their 1979 wedding ceremony was not considered valid.
“We called it a witnessing,” said Delisle of their ceremony. As if to acknowledge that love and commitment are the only essential and necessary marriage criteria, their photo was chosen to be exhibited. Delisle and Robertson underwent a wedding ceremony and included the necessary signed documentation in 2005 to validate the marriage and satisfy legal requirements.
Couple Linda and Lynne Robidoux Burndorfer celebrated seven years of married life this past July. They believe their submitted wedding photo to the CMHR was chosen for its depiction of peace and love between two people.
According to Linda, the couple knew early on they were meant for each other. She recalls thinking to herself, “I am going to marry that gal,” following a visit from Lynne at her workplace. Two years into the relationship, Lynne remembers Linda saying to her, “When are you going to ask me to marry you?” Linda concludes, “Thanks to the freedom and marriage laws we cherish in Canada, my/our dreams came true and we both got to walk together hand-in-hand and become legally and lovingly married.”
In Canada, we may have come further regarding gay rights than some countries, such as Jamaica. However, there are still significant acts of violence against GLBT* people in Canada. The most recent being last year’s stabbing of openly gay Nova Scotian Scott Jones, which left him paraplegic. The stabbing was a stark reminder that homophobia is still alive in this country.
In 2011, CMHR CEO Stuart Murray signed a memorandum of agreement with the Netherlands embassy to facilitate the promotion of human rights through joint projects. Both nations play leading roles in the area of human rights.
May they lead the way together—along with other allied nations—in the current battle for GLBT* rights and challenge people to take action in today’s human rights endeavours.
– Armande Martine is a provincial civil servant, mother of three adult children and partner to Nelle. She is an advocate for LBGTQ* rights and equality.