Canadian Labour Movement’s fight for LGBTQ rights

By: Lisa Kelly, Unifor, Canadian Trade Union Delegation

I was honoured to be part of the UNCSW61 parallel event Labour of Love: Unions Advancing Women’s Human Rights. Speakers covered the role of trade unions in fights for maternity leave, pay equity, fair wages, public services and support for women facing violence. My portion of the panel dealt with the labour movement’s intersectional work on human rights. As a lesbian, I shared the importance of the labour movement in advancing LGBTQ issues and where we had work still to do. Here’s some of what I said and wished I had time to say.

As compared to most countries around the world, Canada has solid legal rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. There is no question in my mind that this came about, in part, because of unions taking up the equality rights of their members. The first legal challenges for relationship recognition occurred in the context of benefit coverage of gay and lesbian workers’ families.  These cases were taken by their unions through the arbitration process. This is a less costly and quicker process than going through either human rights tribunals or to the courts.

Through this process, people came out giving union leaders human anchors to the issue of discrimination. Unions began putting same-sex benefits, as we used to call it, on the bargaining table. And winning.  In my own union, a directive was given that all locals should be bargaining this equality measure regardless of whether anyone came forward asking for it. A decade before the laws were changed, unions across Canada were building more equal workplaces for their lesbian, gay and bisexual members. And more members were coming out. And soon, elected leaders were coming out about themselves or their family members.

For me, I can’t tell you how freeing it is to bring your whole self to work. I knew that when I came out my union had my back. As a union staff person, I wasn’t going to be fired. I didn’t have to hide who I loved and made my life with or my family configuration. I was embraced. All the energy that would have gone into hiding myself, could go into my work. And because I could be out in such a secure way, I could work to advance issues of equality with my union’s support.

The current challenge in Canada is around transgender rights. We have implicit protection in our human rights legislation for trans people. However, there is a need to be more explicit and activists and unions have fought to get the ground of gender identity into human rights legislation.  We’ve been successful in most of the provinces in Canada. Just this week an additional province announced it would be changing its law. The federal human rights legislation is in the process of being changed.

But there’s an additional win in this process.  We weren’t just fighting to add the ground of gender identity. We also gained the ground of gender expression. This is a tool that is helpful to the trans community but also to anyone who wants to challenge the gender binary and stereotypical gender roles. We know that there is still a gap between legal rights and social reality. But this is a start.

There is a clear connection between fighting for LGBTQ rights and gender justice. I’m proud to be able to work, through my union, on all of these issues.

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