RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Montreal.
I was five years old when I was decriminalized.
In 1969, the Canadian government struck down the laws that made homosexuality illegal. Did that end homophobia? Hardly, not even close. Did it make me feel safer? Well, I was only 5. But it’s not hard to imagine how my life would have unfolded had the laws still been in place. And, yes, some of us know we are queer very early in life, even if we don’t have a language for who we are – or a law against it.
Now there’s a coin marking this important milestone, and who’s upset? Not the usual sorts, the social conservatives (such a cozy term for bigotry). Of course, a few are carrying on about the “gay agenda,” a term that reveals only that the people using it are stuck in Jerry Falwell’s 1995, but the loudest noises are coming from queer academics who argue that the coin is an attempt to whitewash the reality of queer life in Canada, then and now. They’re right and they’re wrong.
I am no fan of the Canadian government’s puttering, achingly slow crawl toward real and lasting equality for LGBTQ citizens. And businesses, social-welfare systems and allegedly protective entities and measures fail queer people every single day. The struggle can be exhausting and dangerous. In 2001, I was gay-bashed while cops watched and then drove away: so, please, I need no further education on how far we have to go as a society nor how much harder our leaders need to work. I’m living the problem, and so is every queer person I know. The minting of a coin changes little in real life terms.
But, damn, can’t I have one minute off? One happy moment to acknowledge that while things are far from perfect, queer rights are now on a coin. A coin.
Think about it – something you use every day for the most mundane transactions now signals to the world that queer people exist, have rights and that there is a progress model in place, however flawed. Why is this cause for anything but celebration?
I’m not suggesting anyone send flowers and chocolates to the PMO, but I’m getting some for myself; because I remember, and through memory know that even 10 years ago a “gay coin,” as it is being dubbed, would and could not have existed.
The job of a queer academic, arguably any academic, is to raise questions and even cause trouble. Smiling acceptance of the federal government’s latest round of self back-patting is not in order here, but neither is an overwrought calling-out.
When you lash out over a footnote such as the coin – a thing that you simultaneously (and apparently without much self-reflection) dismiss in your lashing out as a nothing, an empty gesture – you prompt two obvious questions: What merits real anger and, the inevitable question from straight people, what does it take to make queers happy?
In answer to the first, everything else. In answer to the second, actual, tangible equality. No queer person will pick up that coin and think: Well, problem solved, history all tidied up, nothing but blue skies ahead! Really, one wonders at times just how stupid queer academics think the rest of us queers are.
However, many queer people will see that coin in their palm and for a moment feel a little less invisible. Is this latest bauble just lip service from the government? Yes, and thin lipped, too. But being visible is always better than the alternative.
“Teachable moment” is a cliché now, which is unfortunate because the strategy behind the phrase works. Hold that coin up to straight people and tell them how long and difficult the struggle has been and continues to be for LGBTQ people and that, with respect and thanks, we’ll take your coin but are not blinded by its cheap lustre. The coin is just a prop, a pretty float in a Pride parade. And that is all it needs to be.
As for the coin deniers, if your queer rights pivot on whether or not the government makes a coin, you are either in a way worse place than I can imagine, or you’re just being decadent with your complaining. Pick your battles. (To wit, “gay coin” is terrible marketing. Let’s call it a Carney, after former MP and Senator Pat Carney, who tried, way back in 1980, to have sexual orientation added to the Human Rights Act).
Symbols count. How much?
One social conservative activist told the media he would never put the “gay coin” in his pocket, but would exchange it for quarters.
Perhaps I’ll send that alarmed gentleman some quarters, with a note congratulating him on how he now gets what it’s like to feel uncomfortable, alienated and disempowered in an everyday, supposedly harmless situation. Welcome to my world, friend. For such snark potential alone, that coin is worth my dollar.
When I was a fruity little boy, I collected coins. Somewhere out there is another little queer kid collecting shiny new coins. Go get them some.