To the Editor – A letter to St. Stephen Town Council from Steven Noble

courier-community-news

Editor,

I listened to the recording of the town council meeting where the middle school teachers and principal were presenting their students’ ideas around a rainbow crosswalk near their school in support of their LGBTQI peers, and what I heard was a depth of ignorance and fear that was astounding coming from the council. The conversations captured by the recording could have taken place in the 1950s. That there was any disagreement between allowing the crosswalk and banning it tells me things actually are not okay in the town of St. Stephen.

If this is a truly inclusive place, there would not be a moment’s hesitation, and the crosswalk would be allowed. That the meeting became heated highlights there is a strong undercurrent of homophobia within this town that no one wants to acknowledge. Further, the irony is that the majority of people deciding what may be right for queer kids at this meeting are straight adults!! The best individuals to decide what is best for queer people are queer people. There is nothing worse than mainstreamed individuals telling marginalized people what is best for those same marginalized people. Rich people can’t tell poor people what they need, straight people can’t tell gay people what they need, men can’t tell women what they need. Each of those are acts of arrogance and condescension. That’s what I heard on that recording. There are clear reasons why this crosswalk should be going forward, without question:

  1. Deputy Mayor Jason Carr said that his reasons for not wanting the crosswalk are the rainbow crosswalk goes against his religious beliefs, and if one group wants this, other groups will want it too. For all those who are relying on their religious beliefs to block this proposal, in Canada there is a separation of church and state. That’s why there aren’t prayers in schools any longer. That’s why when Jean Chretien supported same sex marriage (Chretien being a highly religious Catholic) told the Pope to mind his own business when the Pope was trying to sway him. Religious arguments have no place in the secular state. Period. Further, this is a public (state supported) school, and the government cannot use religion to block a secular activity. The only thing the town can look at this from is cost, inconvenience, community taste, human rights standards, and legality. Period.
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  1. Further to Deputy Mayor Jason Carr, his complaint that If one group does it, then other groups will want to do this. Great!! Let’s have a senior’s group paint a sidewalk, a people with disabilities group paint a sidewalk, a Black group paint a sidewalk, the Syrian refugees paint a sidewalk, etc. etc. Many other small towns have used art to attract tourists: Chemainus BC uses huge murals all over their town highlighting life in the area, Duncan BC uses scores of totem poles to draw in tourists, Stratford, ON created the Stratford Festival. Wouldn’t it be great if the town was filled with colourful sidewalks of all the groups here in town – wouldn’t that be about inclusion? So, start with one group who wants to help out their peers and support them. Welcome others, too, to do the same. And if the town council is afraid of hate groups trying to get into the action… well, we have hate laws in this country that would block that.

 

  1. One councillor said, “I understand that this idea of ‘the rainbow flag represents everyone’ – well, the rainbow flag doesn’t represent me.” Those are two different sentiments. The rainbow flag does represent all people with all different sexual identities, races, cultures, abilities, etc. That is what the designer of the rainbow flag intended. What is more telling is that the speaker said “it doesn’t represent me.” Well, that’s because of the flag’s attachment to the gay movement. That’s homophobia. The speaker is saying “I don’t want to be included by you because you are gay.”

 

  1. I laugh in a depressing way whenever I hear someone from the mainstream say that they are not being racist, homophobic, classist, ableist, etc. Imagine a Black person hearing a White person say they are not racist, but please no mural about Black people in their neighbourhood. Or a straight person telling the community of sexual people in St. Stephen that the town is inclusive, and that he/she doesn’t hate gay people (definition of homophobia), but please no sidewalk art that symbolizes everyone that comes from a gay impulse or group. It’s blindly ridiculous and utterly homophobic.

 

  1. Most importantly, this is being done by the kids, for the kids. The kids want this to support their sexual minority peers – and importantly those kids who are working through their sexual identities. That is a scary, intense, and uncertain time for many. Straight people have no concept about what this whole coming to terms is all about. It can take literally decades to become completely comfortable with one’s sexuality. So much so, that the suicide rate of kids living with a sexual minority label and/or working through their identity and coming out is four times higher than the general student population. Symbols matter for those who often feel like they are the only ones going through these transitions. When schools and society have few strong gay or lesbian role models for kids to look up to, they often look to each other and their friends. This is what the crosswalk is all about and why this project is critical for youth mental health.

 

  1. The town has completely forgotten about the same-sex community that lives in and around St. Stephen, who pays taxes, and who want to contribute to the town. This meeting and the refutation of this crosswalk has just signalled to all of us that we’ve become second-classed citizens – yet at the same time we’re expected to keep our wallets open to support this “inclusive town.” If you want our money, you have to respect us and all citizens of this town – not just the ones who agree with your view or are like you in some way. If I’m not going to be respected, I will take all my business out of the town and go elsewhere to get my goods and services. I will tell my friends nationally and internationally about the nonsense going on here. Diversity is about acceptance of everyone. We are not asking for tolerance, which is only an act of condescension of “putting up with.” But, now, let me tell you about this “inclusive town.” We have been called names and had expletives shouted at us while we walk down the street, and have had a dead skunk put on our car. I’ve had a certain local, religious group try to undermine my English teaching of adults, by talking to my students, telling them that they shouldn’t be taught by a homosexual, but that this “church” could do better. I’ve battled with the provincial government, including our local MLA, over free eye tests for diabetics (NB is the only province other than PEI and NFLD that forces diabetics to pay out of pocket for these tests). And now this. People who are being bullied or harassed typically don’t step forward to complain, particularly when the environment is not supportive or safe. National school climate surveys have shown that schools are among the most unsafe places for students. And this whole episode simply shows everyone who is outside of the mainstream that this is not a safe town – and further – the town government supports this lack of safety. Your actions and words carry weight and matter town council.

 

  1. I heard someone say on the recording that he “has to follow what people who voted for me want.” Quite frankly, that’s not true. Each of you, as councillors, have to support and protect all voters and their interests, not just the ones who voted for you. This is what Trump in the US has been busy doing: supporting his base. Yet, close to 70 per cent of voters do not support him because he does not have everyone’s interests at heart. I was shocked when I heard this from a councillor. He’s saying that he has to protect the interests of straight people; presumably sexual minorities would not vote for a homophobe.

 

  1. A voice stated that there is the freedom to speak out and disagree in this country. Religious rights, like sexuality rights are not absolute. There is freedom to practice any religion, but not infringe on the rights of others outside of that religion. Yes, everyone has the right to disagree in Canada. And yes, their views can be listened to – and they should be. But everyone also has the right to critique those views and put them down if need be. One’s views are not sacrosanct, but are open to debate. If someone holds racist views, they are going to be critiqued; if someone holds homophobic views, they are going to be critiqued. When someone holds power, their views are going to come under even more stringent scrutiny because that person has the ability to irrevocably shape – and injure – the lives of constituents. In this day and age, homosexuality is far more acceptable than in days past and, yes, we have constitutionally (albeit only read in rights as opposed to entrenched) protected rights against discrimination. Just as those who hold religious views are protected. But none of these rights are without limit. Rights are limited to the point where they infringe on the rights of one or more other groups. Religious rights are about the right to freely practice whatever religion or spiritual practice one chooses in this country. In this case, of the crosswalk, there is no infringement on anyone practicing a particular religion. They can still go to their church, synagogue or mosque and practice their religion. The crosswalk does not impede them in that practice. I’m afraid the councillor(s) who say that this affects their ability to practice their religion is going to have to show how this, in fact, is the case. Having one’s religious faith affronted by the existence of a group doesn’t cut it and is only homophobia, by any other name. Further, having this crosswalk does not say other crosswalks cannot be included – certainly all groups can, theoretically, apply to paint a crosswalk too. That’s called inclusion.

 

  1. Someone said that he didn’t believe the crosswalk was going to fix a child going through their sexual identity struggles, or fix bullying or help someone living as a sexual minority. No one suggested that the crosswalk would fix anything. The crosswalk is a symbol to raise awareness within a community that there remains this struggle among its people – and that the community is showing that it recognizes this struggle is very real and that there is a way to reach out for help. Crosswalks are not curative, but are a touchstone to raise awareness; there was never that claim made.

 

  1. Many people have said that St. Stephen is a good community. Quite frankly, when this kind of thing has to be said repeatedly, chances are that it’s not a strong, good or inclusive community. Actions speak louder than words. Just because the leaders say this, doesn’t make it true. It’s in the leaders’ best interest to say that – they’re doing their job. I’m sure there were and are a lot of communities in the Deep South of the US that treat Blacks horribly where town leaders still believe they are living in good communities too. The only people who can say a community is good or not is each individual who lives within it. I know there are many people who don’t like St. Stephen who live here. When I first moved to the town, the number one question I was asked was, “Why would you bother to move here?” From my own experience, I have found St. Stephen to be one of the most disconnected towns I’ve lived in (and this is after 13 moves across Canada). Where I live there are neighbours who don’t like one another or who rarely talk to one another or very rarely do people get together socially. I suspect if one has lived here all their lives, he or she would believe this is a good town; however, when someone comes “from away” the town is full of cliques of locals that are hard to break into creating a level of isolation or not quite belonging. As a researcher, I’ve interviewed people who came to St. Stephen as a young child and still, as a young adult, feel that they’ve never fully belonged in the town.

 

  1. Using the council’s ignorance about these crosswalks was one of the silliest excuses I heard. The council has five days to do some quick research on the topic (Wikipedia is very easy) of rainbow sidewalks, but they all decided not to do anything before the meeting. I wonder if the group would do that if this was a group of seniors wanting to paint a crosswalk and there was a history of these easily attainable on the Internet? There was a lot of passive aggressive behaviour going on at this council meeting. This was one of those moments.

 

  1. The argument that this whole thing was provided with short notice was also silly and was just a stalling tactic. It’s putting paint on a sidewalk! Just how many pressing items do council members face within a week? This isn’t Toronto or Halifax for heaven’s sake! This whole reasoning was a weak smokescreen to simply delay and stall.

 

  1. The argument from the mayor stating that he was afraid of the crosswalk being defaced was his reason that it shouldn’t be created in the first place. The response from school personnel was, well, the school will keep painting over the crosswalk to keep it in shape – at the school’s cost. A key reason for not wanting to do this was taken away from the council. The school said that it would cover all costs of paint, labour and upkeep. Zero cost to the town. Clearly this is more important to the school community than the broader community council.

 

  1. The argument that the crosswalk won’t create inclusiveness really is about the argument of equality versus fairness. The crosswalk is about inclusiveness, whether others feel they are included or not by the symbol of the rainbow. That is the intent of the symbol. But more than that, the argument is one about fairness versus equality – and no they are not the same ideas. Every day is straight pride day. All of St. Stephen is built around the concept that straightness is the one right and true sexuality. People who are straight, therefore, live in their straight privilege every day. Sexual minorities do not. Just some instances of straight privilege that are taken for granted are: a) personal displays of affection; b) assumption that your spouse is opposite sexed; c) unspoken bias against sexual minorities (many instances arose in this council meeting); religious beliefs are more valid than sexual identity; d) having to ‘come out’ or identify as a sexual minority with each unfamiliar person or group a sexual minoritied person comes in contact with; e) gendered assumptions (men use tools; women do the child-caring), etc. People who are marginalized need additional supports than those who live in relative privilege. That’s called fairness. Equality is treating everyone the same, which means their relative advantage/disadvantage remains despite the equal treatment meaning unfairness remains.

 

  1. A pastor proclaimed “there’s no bullying issue” because no one had stepped forward. A research project I did in Vancouver involved working with South Asian families and domestic violence. From outward appearances there appeared to be virtually no domestic violence going on. Behind closed doors domestic violence was rampant and destructive. The point is the vast majority of bullying victims don’t reach out, but suffer in silence. The pastor’s assumption is dangerous and potentially deadly to assume that because no one’s saying anything that it doesn’t exist. A lot of sexual minority youth suffer bullying in silence because too often they believe they are the only ones who are living the trauma. That was my own experience for years.

 

  1. One councillor commented that the presenters were “Playing children on our feelings.” Here’s the thing. We’re talking middle school. At this point we’re already too late with addressing sexual identity issues. Research shows that gay and lesbians know from as young as the age of 4, 5, or 6 that they were “different” without having the language to label what the source of that difference is. That’s kindergarten. From kindergarten to middle school there is already a growing awareness of their sense of difference, but with no role models, no symbols, no one to talk to they feel cut off and isolated. Something as simple as a rainbow crosswalk can highlight for that person that people are there to reach out and help them. By middle school many kids are well on their way to developing their sexuality identity, while others are still working through their senses of self.

 

  1. One councillor said he had to think for himself meaning, he had to put himself before his constituents. Actually he has to put himself second and the community first. Being a leader is putting your own needs aside for the greater good.
  2. As a symbol, the rainbow raises awareness, but doesn’t cure social or personal struggles. No one said that the crosswalk “cured” or “fixed” anything, but it is a touchstone to alert people in need that there is help in this (clearly unsafe) community.

 

  1. This next issue is a key problem for the council. They don’t want to be put in a position of defending the rainbow crosswalk because they don’t want to be viewed as supporting, agreeing with or identifying with the gay community. This is the nub of the problem for some councillors and is the hidden homophobia that supports the town council’s resistance. .

 

  1. Deputy Mayor Jason Carr said that he could not support the move because of his religious beliefs, presumably Christian. However, sexuality and religion are not mutually exclusive sets of beliefs. There are many religious sexual minorities across all religions – Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. There are churches that welcome sexual minority people. Conservative, right wing, religious sects are the ones that have the problem. Again, being affronted about a belief does not allow a person to block the rights of another group. Religious rights means to be able to practice one’s religious faith and practice without impediment. Painting a rainbow sidewalk does not impede one’s religious faith or practice in the slightest – and further I would suggest it’s a form of violence to block the rights of an entire group because of one person’s (erroneously) perceived notion that his religious rights have been blocked.

 

  1. The rainbow crosswalk is an opportunity for education – but then a councillor suggested that the cross walk could just be all on school property – away from the public. This is a common way to closet realities that the straight mainstream tries to do to hide away the reality of sexual minorities. If the crosswalk is sequestered away from the community, then the councillors don’t have to talk about it and the fact of sexual minorities’ existence is hidden from the broader community’s view. This was a desperate, fearful suggestion that has no place in public education.

 

  1. I heard the councillors suggest that they could pursue other opportunities during the Wed Nov 15th But why other opportunities? This was something raised by the students. There is precedence internationally. By going with other opportunities, the council is creating a solution that fits with their biased, ignorant worldview rather than the more insightful, sensitive and aware perspective put forward by the student
  2. A councillor said that phone calls never affect his decision. Bizarre. All input – phone conversations, face to face conversations, documents, news reports, statistics, and research – all of it should inform one’s decision. To exclude phone calls as having any merit is bizarre and ignorant. Further, on the recording it was stated that there was only one phone call that had complained about this. That is a lot of power to give one phone call. The community seems to be rallying around this issue to the exclusion of the town council, highlight how out of touch this town’s power elite is.
  3. For me, the bottom line is that if this initiative doesn’t go forward, I will file a human rights complaint with the provincial human rights commission. There are so many grounds for a complaint provided by news reporting and the recording of the council meeting. I have lived through so much, struggled through horrendous past events to achieve a level of equality for me and, hopefully, have contributed to the rights of all sexual minorities that I am not going to tolerate the lack of acceptance of this small-minded town’s attempt to roll back the clock to somewhere in the 1950s.

The whole episode reminded me that there are still pockets of regressive towns across this country and that there is a renewed interest among some straight people to continue resisting the rights given to sexual minorities. If this was a group of seniors, people with disabilities, pregnant women or a hockey team wanting to paint a crosswalk, I doubt that there would be any controversy.

Because this is, once again, sexual minorities seeing a town council slowly reacting and struggling to figure out what to do with this “new situation” – a situation that has been dealt with innumerable times across the country and around the world. Let’s keep in mind that same-sexed marriage has been legal in Canada for 12 years and same-sexed couples have been filing joint taxes for close to 20 years, but oh in St. Stephen… same-sexed citizens … well that’s a whole new thing!!

The reaction from the town council should have been “Hey, great idea, what can we do to help?” What did the school receive? Fear, ignorance, and homophobia. Welcome to St. Stephen: where the children are showing more leadership than some adults in power. I am gay. I am a senior. I matter like anyone else living here. The law says so. I just wish we had a town council that agreed.

Steven Noble

St. Stephen