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On Kelowna and Transphobia, from a Queer Grandpa’s Heart

Our youth deserve better than this. Here’s how to confront a rising tide of hate.

Wilbur Turner 23 Jun 2023The Tyee

Wilbur Turner (he/him/his) is the chair and founder of Advocacy Canada, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

It was Friday evening. I was eating dinner at home when my phone chimed with a new message notification. I don’t usually look at messages when I’m eating, but the words “Did you see what happened to my daughter” from my friend Heidi gave me a chill. I picked up the phone and read the message in full. It said, “Did you see what happened to my daughter at district track and field finals? This community can really be terrible sometimes.”

I have known Heidi since before her daughter was born. Having her share the trauma of her daughter’s gender being questioned at a Kelowna school sports event by the grandfather of another Kelowna student was heartbreaking. It made me think about my own grandchildren who are sports enthusiasts and what it would be like for them if they experienced this as they competed in martial arts or on the soccer field.

This incident happened because the man, Josef Tesar, suggested Heidi’s daughter was either a boy or transgender. Heidi said he was belligerent when asked to leave and demanded to see certification of the child’s gender.

This incident hits close to home in many aspects.

My youngest grandson just turned 10, and this little girl just turned 10 as well. The girl was wearing baggy clothes and had a pixie haircut. I thought about my oldest grandson who has beautiful blond hair and wears it long. What if someone misgendered him because of his hairstyle and wanted to deny him from a sports competition? These kinds of incidents can leave lasting scars.

I have dear friends here in Kelowna where I live, and where this occurred, whose children are trans. I helped form a support group for queer youth called Etcetera just over 10 years ago and have watched as hundreds of kids have been supported by the program, many of them trans or gender diverse.

In my conversations with parents of these children, and with those among the trans community, I have felt the heaviness of their anxiety and concern. Concern about the future, about safety and about visibility.

As a grandfather and a dad, all I have wanted for my children and grandkids is for them to succeed. And my grandpa's heart feels the same way for all kids. I can’t imagine the coldness that it would take to make this type of assault on a child.

An unprecedented level of vitriol

In justifying his actions, Tesar said he thought the child was a boy and just ended up by mistake in the girls event. Kids are smarter than that. What boy would accidentally be lined up for shot put in a girls’ event?

The man is himself an athlete and had his name in a sports hall of fame. As an athlete he would know the importance of encouragement and the mental state needed to participate in a competition. My friend’s daughter was in tears and lost her focus. A Twitter commenter summed up my sentiments: “I don't get it. With this man's background, he could help the aspirations of children in their athletics but chose to damage the spirit of a 9-year-old. What a waste. How selfish.”

The incident happened Friday, June 9 and the story broke in the news the following Monday afternoon. I posted it on Twitter.

When I looked at Twitter the next morning, I realized the story was going viral. The views were jumping by 100,000 every few minutes. At the time of writing it is at 9.7 million views. The backlash to the man’s discriminatory and hateful behaviour has been fierce from not only the public, but has been called out by political leaders at all levels of government.

The outrage has been palpable. But we have to consider an important factor which has been completely ignored in the media handling of the event. What most people have missed in this story is this: you accuse someone of a crime, not of being trans.

The cisgender-centred power around this story ignored the background of why this happened and the immense, traumatic impact on the trans community. I am only aware of one media organization that interviewed a person from the local trans community. And we must ask ourselves the question, would the outrage have been the same if the girl had been trans?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Inspired by the success of anti-trans activism and politics in the United States, well-funded and vocal groups across Canada have been agitating against support for LGBTQ2S+ students in public schools. Kelowna has been a hotspot for this activity with harassment at queer events, school board meetings, parent advisory councils and schools being on the rise.

Misinformation and propaganda is used to fuel hatred and fear of the trans community. Trans women competing in sports is a specific target, even though current studies show there is virtually no evidence of any competitive advantage.

I have been doing advocacy and volunteer work for almost 30 years and I have never experienced the level of vitriol and hatred that is currently aimed at the queer community.

I formed a non-profit, Advocacy Canada, two years ago as I saw the need to unify and amplify queer voices on advocacy issues. But I never imagined we would be dealing with these types of emerging issues.

As a person on the frontlines of what has turned into a culture war, I regularly get threats and insults. Most common are “I hope you die of AIDS,” or “You belong in jail,” along with the tired tropes of groomer and pedophile. What I have learned is that if people are dehumanized in this way, it is easier to hate them.

‘Our families are so shattered right now’

My inbox and messages fill up with requests for help pretty much on a daily basis. My friend Carrie, who founded Transparent Okanagan along with her husband Wayne, reached out yesterday with a request. Her organization supports parents of trans and gender diverse kids. “Our families are so shattered right now,” she said, in the wake of what happened at the track and field finals earlier this month. She asked if we could do something fun and supportive, like a video message for the parents.

Another parent reached out to tell me her gay son was in tears because he heard that an anti-SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] candidate was running to be president of their school Parents Advisory Committee. “There’s a parent trying to be on the PAC who wants to ban pride at the school. He is distraught,” she said. I put out a call for help from the community.

Another parent contacted me who has a trans daughter to tell me that the PAC at her school has anti-SOGI board members and they mock any Pride-related information at the school, making the meetings toxic. Teachers are contacting me saying they’re afraid to stand up against discrimination at school for fear of being targeted. Sometimes it all feels hopeless and never ending. And it is exhausting.

There is hope though, and I’m optimistic. But it is going to take help. One thing is abundantly clear to me: solidarity among the queer community and allies is critical.

The swift reaction to the transphobic bullying at the sports event has created a momentum that we can build on. Public education is key in countering the fear, misinformation and ignorance that is sweeping North America.

Taking action on queer safety, and what allies can do

At Advocacy Canada we’re spearheading a community initiative to put up positive messaging billboards to support the queer community. We have a GoFundMe campaign that has already raised over $7,000 and have commissioned a local Indigenous queer artist to create the design. This billboard campaign is designed to uplift the spirits and hearts of the queer community and will have its own dedicated webpage with education information for the public.

Our organization has also aligned with Momentum to call on the federal government to take action on queer safety.

I believe that all of our elected officials at every level of government have a duty to address the rising hate and targeted harassment of the queer community. People are being radicalized to hate and it will turn into violence if not stopped.

I am also part of a queer and allies cross-community working group that meets regularly on ways to address issues and support each other. This emerged out of the ongoing protests at drag and other queer community events. We deal with issues of community safety, media relations and event support.

Our board at Advocacy Canada would like to see the narrative change about Kelowna from being an intolerant, queerphobic city to being inclusive and supportive of everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We believe this can be achieved through working together as a community, with community partners and elected officials.

While this one incident puts the spotlight on the reality of those who deal with transphobia on a daily basis, we recognize that people with these views are a minority. We just need to encourage the majority who don’t share these views to step up and speak up.

So allies, here’s what you can do. Ask how you can get involved in supporting the queer community. Ask how you can get educated about the transgender community. Call on your elected government officials to take action. Coming out to Pride festivals and waving rainbow flags is wonderful, but it is going to take a lot more than that now.

As a fledgling non-profit, Advocacy Canada has no funding. As volunteers, we’re all trying to respond as best we can to the calls for help. It seems a bit daunting. I hope we can secure funding to be able to hire staff.

Everyone deserves the right to live authentically, be visible, and be accepted for who they are without fear. Our youth really deserve this. Thinking of this is what motivates and energizes me.  [Tyee]

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