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Words are powerful but LGBTQ2 equality requires more than a Trudeau apology

Brenda Cossman is a professor of law and director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Daniel Del Gobbo is a Trudeau scholar at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School

Words are powerful. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Trudeau will issue an historic apology to LGBTQ2 people in the House of Commons for laws and policies that discriminated against them because of their gender and sexuality.

The apology is a watershed moment for LGBTQ2 equality in Canada. For decades, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Canadians were routinely fired from their jobs, denied access to social services, discharged from the military, and convicted of serious crimes for simply being who they were.

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Enormous strides have been made toward LGBTQ2 equality in Canada. From same-sex marriage to the protection of trans and non-binary individuals from discrimination on the basis of gender expression and gender identity, our country has come a long way since the days of the worst abuses at the hands of the federal government. But until now, the government had never formally acknowledged these abuses or tried to make amends for past wrongs.

This apology changes that. Its words have real meaning to many LGBTQ2 people whose lives were disrupted and families were torn apart by homophobic and transphobic laws, yet who struggled in the shadows without recognition or support from the Canadian public. Hopefully, the apology sets our country on a course of accepting this sorrowful legacy and recognizing the full citizenship of sexual minorities.

But words can also be cheap, and LGBTQ2 equality requires more than an apology. For the government's apology to have substance, it needs to be accompanied by meaningful reforms that continue to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Canadians everywhere.

Some of these reforms may be coming. The Prime Minister has recently announced changes to the criminal law which address issues that matter to LGBTQ2 people. There are plans to erase prior convictions for gross indecency based solely on the fact that sexual partners were gay. There are plans to repeal provisions of the Criminal Code that impose stricter consent requirements for sexual minorities.

However, gender and sexuality remain among the most persistently policed aspects of our intimate relationships. Right now, our criminal law is still being used to regulate and punish queer lives. From undercover operations targeting gay men and the aggressive prosecution of HIV non-disclosure to the widespread over-incarceration of trans and two-spirit people that continues unabated, criminal law continues to police sexual minorities. We need to limit the state's control over consensual sex. This means continuing to reform the criminal-justice system to make it more sex-positive and accepting of gender difference.

At the same time, we need to fundamentally transform the social, cultural, and economic conditions that continue to foster discrimination against LGBTQ2 people. This means that additional reforms are needed to tackle the problems of income inequality, sexual harassment at work, reproductive rights, the lack of affordable housing, bullying in schools, equal access to health care, and the intersection of multiple systems of oppression along racial and cultural lines which continue to bear down on LGBTQ2 people in unique and often subtle ways. So long as they continue to face these obstacles, equality for sexual minorities will remain out of reach.

Tuesday's apology should invite all of us to have a difficult conversation – about how far we've come as a country, and how far we have left to go to promote LGBTQ equality. Words are powerful, so we should use them to demand that our society takes real action.

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