Called Out

Gage Park, Hamilton

I usually use this space to write about things that inspire me–books, music, architecture, nature–or about history. It a privilege–in all senses of that word–that I treasure, especially as a student of history. At this place, at this time, I have the freedom to express my opinions without fear–and yet, sometimes I do not accept this gift of privilege, at least not in long form.  But I see others I care about attacked, their safety endangered, and as much as I believe wholeheartedly in the power of kindness as a balm to a world hurting, kindness should not be equated with reticence to speak out in the face of injustice.  As much as I prefer to lend quiet support, sometimes words are needed.  These are those words.

Today is Independence Day in the United States. Every lesson I learned as a child about the country of my birth focused on its ideals–liberty and justice for all. During my adult life, I have seen those ideals undermined and attacked by some of the very people who claim to act in the best interests of the country.  But this is not about what is happening south of the border.  This is about what is happening in my own town.

My American friends, who are mostly of a progressive bent, often look to Canada as an ideal to be emulated, and in some ways, it is. We legalized same-sex marriage long before it became legal in the US.  We have universal health care, traditions that see the value of those cultures who come to settle here–the patchwork quilt rather than the melting pot of assimilation.  Even our banking system is seen as more stable. These things are all true, but there is so many areas where Canada can do better.  And largely,  in my part of the world, the will is there to at least try–or so I thought.

I am used to the enormous phenomenon that is is Pride in Toronto, which is not only accepted by the City, but recognized as the tourist draw that it is by both government and business. But what I was surprised by is how different the situation is in Hamilton, only about 45 minutes down the QEW.  The Hammer, as Hamilton is often called, is hard–a once and current steel town with a Mob presence, traditionally blue collar, an unusual mix of unionists and conservatives, but in recent years, seeing signs of revival as Torontonians, fleeing overblown housing markets, flock to snap up the old Victorians and open trendy shops and restaurants. It is a city of contradictions, a city that has struggled with corruption and scandal, a city with a long history that doesn’t seem to quite yet know where it’s going. It wants to be a Pittsburgh, but it still isn’t yet quite past being a Youngstown. Local politics are polarized, particularly because the “City of Hamilton” includes not just the downtown area and the area up the Mountain that were part of the old city, but also Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Dundas, Glanbrook–some of which are still completely rural, and are still angered at having their own government taken away from them back in the era of amalgamation. There is a lot of resentment bubbling just below the surface–and there are groups that seek to take advantage of that, from the biker gangs of yesteryear to the Yellow Vests of today.  The latter have been demonstrating every Saturday outside of City Hall for months, and have been growing bolder.

Hamilton’s LGBTQ+ community is small.  If asked, I couldn’t tell you where the resources for the community are located, if they exist at all. There is certainly nothing like Toronto’s Church Street Village.  They’re vulnerable, almost invisible. And as in many cities, and not without cause, they distrust the police, who not long ago were arresting them.

At Pride celebrations a couple of weeks ago, alt-right activists made it known publicly that they were going to make their presence known.  In response, local activists–some antifa, some from the LGBTQ community–showed up at Pride festivities in Gage Park to provide a physical shield for the Pride activities (in the form of a large fabric barrier).  They were attacked. Police, who had been denied permission to erect a recruitment booth at Pride activities, were slow to respond to the violence. And in the aftermath, the first three arrests made were to those attempting to protect the LGBTQ community, despite video footage of at least one of the aggressors being captured and widely circulated.  The first arrested was Cedar Hopperton, who was on parole from an earlier incident stemming from a protest involving property damage, with the claim that they had been present at Gage Park, in violation of the terms of parole. It has only emerged in the past couple of days, as it has been fairly clearly proven that Hopperton was not at the protest, that they were actually arrested for a completely different reason–speaking against police, again, allegedly in contravention of parole terms.  Hopperton is, indeed, an anarchist, but they are also a member of the LGBTQ community. Their concerns are genuine.

Hamilton’s mayor and several city councilors seemed stunned by all of this, pointing fingers at the LGBTQ community for not coming forward to police to help with the investigation–the very police that were arresting members of their community.  They seemed stunned to find that alt-right groups were crowing about how they “owned” Hamilton.  They apparently thought that if they just ignored the yellow-vesters, they’d go away, or–worse–they thought that the group they had to worry about were the anarchists;  those Sons of Odin and the like were probably just posturing.  Except, clearly, they were not.  Mayor Fred Eisenberg (who I voted for, given the main other choice was a Doug Ford-style conservative) seemed to be spooked by a bunch of LGBTQ demonstrators showing up at his house waving signs about how frightened they were.

Frightened. Vulnerable.

Those days are over, aren’t they?  We have same-sex marriage! Everyone loves Pride!  We certainly don’t have any of those ridiculous bathroom laws like they do in the States! No one protests Drag Queen Story Hour here! Why are LGBTQ people afraid of the police?  That was years ago!

Was it?

Sure, I want a world where love is love, where everyone is free to be who they are, where their humanity and kindness is what matters, and I too often want to believe that world is here because, in my mind, it is.  Among my friends, among that circle of chosen family, it is absolutely true, but the wider world is not only not always kind, it is still dangerous.  My wishes will not negate that reality.

So my words will have to suffice.  I see you. I believe you. I will have the courage to say these words, because when my family and friends feel unsafe, I feel unsafe as well.

Hamilton, I call you out. This is not going to just go away. Do you want to be known as the home of alt-right extremists and literal Nazis?  Because you’re already travelling down that road.