Academic Conference Taking Place at Concordia to Examine LGBT Rights in Canada and Abroad

LGBT rights around the world; data from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Countries in dark green are jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal. Countries in yellow have laws making homosexual acts illegal. Homosexual acts are punishable by death in the countries in red. Graphic Brandon Johnston

With same-sex marriage now legal in 17 countries but homosexual acts criminalized in 78 others, we’re at a critical moment in terms of LGBTQ rights globally.

With that in mind, the Trudeau Foundation and the Centre Jacques Cartier will hold a two-day conference at Concordia University titled “Imagining the Future of LGBTQ Human Rights” on Oct. 6 and 7.

Over 25 academics from Canada, the United States, Europe and Mozambique, as well as a former member of the European Parliament and chair of its Intergroup for Gay and Lesbian Rights, will be panelists at the conference, which is open to the public.

“At this juncture, with an awareness that you can’t just focus on the Canadian context, the idea was to sort of look openly, look globally, look to the future and see where this justice struggle is going,” said McGill law professor Robert Leckey, who is a member of the conference’s scientific committee.

Marriage Equality, Parental Rights

One of the panel discussions will tackle the subjects of marriage equality, parental rights, and what’s next for the LGBT rights movement once same-sex marriage is legalized, which Canada’s federal government did nationwide in 2005.

According to Leckey, who is a panelist for the discussion, marriage equality has benefited LGBT individuals who wanted their same-sex relationships to be recognized or wanted to obtain immigration status for a partner from a different country.

“Arguably, it helped a lot of reasonably open-minded, well-intended straight people to think through the validity of same-sex relationships,” he added.

But a number of scholars question whether the efforts of LGBT activists were misplaced in focusing so much on marriage equality.

A common argument is that the institution of marriage is “intrinsically heteronormative” as it is too deeply tied to the division of labour between husbands and wives, and too closely linked to “the public-private boundary by which family and intimacy is relegated to the private sphere,” Leckey said.

He added that reminding those who have benefitted from marriage equality to “see themselves as part of a broader coalition that includes trans people” has been a challenge.

“[Same-sex marriage] has led some people to think that the work has been done,” Leckey explained.

And while same-sex marriage and adoption by LGBT individuals may be legal across the country, the laws surrounding surrogacy in Quebec continue to be a source of inequality, added Marie-France Bureau, a law professor at the Université de Sherbrooke, who will chair the discussion.

Commercial surrogacy, when a woman is paid to be a surrogate, is prohibited in Canada, but voluntary surrogacy—when a surrogate is not compensated but may be reimbursed for expenses incurred due to the pregnancy—is legal.

But surrogacy contracts cannot be enforced in Quebec courts due to provisions in the province’s civil code. Bureau said the law’s supporters argue it prevents the “commercialization of the body” and protects the best interests of the child.

The province’s laws effectively leave adoption as the only way for gay men to become parents, limiting their access to parenthood given that “there aren’t a lot of kids up for adoption in liberal democracies such as Quebec,” according to Bureau.

“[Same-sex marriage] has led some people to think that the work has been done.”
—McGill law professor Robert Leckey

The Criminalization of LGBTQ Communities

Another panel discussion during the conference will look at the impacts of criminal law on LGBT communities.

Laws against sodomy and gross indecency continue to criminalize homosexual acts and incarcerate LGBT people around the globe. Meanwhile, in Canada, the law prohibiting HIV non-disclosure disproportionately targets gay men because of the relative prevalence of HIV in the gay community.

If someone knows they have HIV and doesn’t disclose it to a sexual partner before engaging in sexual activities, the act is considered sexual assault under the law, said lawyer and writer Kyle Kirkup, who will be participating in the panel.

He said criminalizing HIV non-disclosure misses the mark because HIV/AIDS should be considered a public health issue and everyone should be involved in fighting its spread.

“If you speak to public health experts, they’re not supportive of criminalizing [HIV non-disclosure] because there’s a worry that people won’t get tested as regularly and then there’s also a worry about [the fact that] once folks go into prison, the rates of transmission in prison increase significantly,” he said.

The only instance “where someone living with HIV does not have a duty to disclose is if there’s a condom that is worn during the encounter and the person has a low viral count,” according to Kirkup, who cited a 2012 Supreme Court decision on the matter.

The panel discussion will also explore the ongoing debate over how to deal with trans individuals in the correctional system.

The issue made national headlines in February, when Avery Edison, a transgender woman from the United Kingdom, wound up in a men’s correctional facility after being detained by border officials at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. She was prevented from entering the country because she had previously overstayed a student visa.

Following public outcry, Edison was transferred to a women’s facility.

Kirkup says people should be allowed to “self-identify” for legal purposes.

Trans Rights

One of conference’s panel discussions is dedicated to trans rights.

One of its panelists, Gabrielle Bouchard of Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy, says much still needs to be done to protect the rights of trans people, adding that it’s a mistake to think that equality has been achieved for all LGBT individuals.

“Trans identities are still either pathologized or not recognized unless people go through requirements that would not be asked of anybody else in society, such as sterilization,” she said, referring to the fact that individuals wishing to change their gender marker in Quebec must undergo surgery that modifies their sexual organs.

A bill now before the Canadian Senate seeks to add “gender identity” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, an addition that could help to protect the rights of trans individuals, Bouchard noted. Parliament amended the act to formally ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996.

The original bill sponsored by NDP MP Randall Garrison also sought to include gender expression, but it was amended in order to receive enough support from Conservative MPs to be passed. Bouchard said removing the term “gender expression” means some individuals may still face discrimination.

“Let’s face it, people are not facing transphobia and homophobia based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity most of the time, but rather because of their gender expression. If you’re not seen as masculine enough or […] feminine enough [for your gender], then you’re called a gay or lesbian or a dyke or derogatory words,” she said.

To view the program for the conference, visit the Trudeau Foundation’s website.

Correction: The infographic accompanying this article mislabelled Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. In these states, homosexual acts are not only illegal, as originally shown, but also punishable by death, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The graphic has been updated accordingly. The Link regrets the error.