By: Tony Davis
Nola Etkin is part of the movement to start a national LGBTQ2S+ museum in Ontario.
Etkin was contacted by CBC, they heard she had archives of material. Before she came out as homosexual, she collected every newspaper article with the word gay in it.
“I would cut out every article,” she said.
The Robertson Library wants to keep a digital archive of the material before it is shipped to Canada’s capital.
“We haven’t ironed the details out, but that is something we are looking at doing instead of sending all our stuff to Ottawa where it may or may not be seen.”
The UPEI chemistry professor has archived a lot of material surrounding LGBTQ2S+ rights, but she has also been a major part of the movement on P.E.I.
She had been all over the country like many budding academics before moving to the Island.
After interviewing for her UPEI job Etkin decided to see what the gay community was like.
She opened the phone book to the Yellow Pages and looked under gay.
There was an information line.
“I called it. It was no longer in service. That was a little bit scary.”
So, she went on the internet looking for other people who were gay on P.E.I.
She got a few responses When she met them they told her she had to talk to someone at UPEI who was a new faculty member.
“I learned that there used to be a phone line; there wasn’t anymore. There used to be dances; there weren’t anymore. There used to be a section of a bookstore. There had been some pride parades. You may have seen this is the 25th anniversary of the first pride parade, but that wasn’t happening anymore.”
However, there was a community here on P.E.I. in the late 90s, you just needed an in, Etkin said.
“I found my way into that community, and it was actually a very welcoming community.”
The community was active, but it didn’t operate openly.
“We’d all go out for dinner every couple weeks. There would be potlucks every month. Wings at Baba’s. So, there was a lot going on.”
When Etkin came to P.E.I. in 1997 homosexuals didn’t have civil rights, but that changed not long after her arrival.
“I became involved with a group seeking to get sexual orientation into the Human Rights Act.”
It was a busy year of political action and research and developing proposals, and Etkin became very visible in the movement because others didn’t feel comfortable being out in the media.
“I felt protected by my job, even though I didn’t have human rights protection, I did feel secure the university would not fire me.”
She was fortunate to be working at UPEI. There were other universities where professors were fired over their sexual orientation in the 90’s.
In 1998, there were only three provinces holding out on putting sexual orientation into the human rights act. Newfoundland put theirs through and that left just Prince Edward Island and Alberta, Etkin said.
“I was in Ontario right before I came here, where we did have human rights protection. So, leaving that to come here I knew that things would have to change and I would be a part of helping that change. That has kind of defined my time here.”
P.E.I. finally recognized sexual orientation in the P.E.I. Human Rights Act in 1998.
“For me to stay here that work had to be done,” Etkin said.
She also had personal battles, when she was told her daughter couldn’t have two mothers on her birth certificate. Etkin went to court, and after two years her first daughter’s birth certificate was issued with Etkin and her partners name.
However, she knows the battle isn’t over and it is partly due to the rise of populist politics.
“You look at the PC leadership race that is going on right now. There is a candidate who is not only antifeminist, but anti-gay, denies the existence of trans identities and is in favour of conversion therapy. Despite many groups and organizations writing to the PC party questioning how this person passed vetting, they’ve allowed him to run for leadership,” Etkin said.
Conversion therapy is only fully banned in two provinces, Ontario and Manitoba. Vancouver has banned the practice, but it is not banned outright in B.C. Nova Scotia has a partial ban, but allows teens aged 16 to 18 the right to consent and receive conversion therapy. Although P.E.I. MLAs unanimously passed a motion prohibiting the use of conversion therapy in November the motion is not legally binding.
Now, the battle has switched from sexual orientation to gender identity, Etkin said.
“I’m also very cognizant of the fact everything we fought for can be taken away. It is scary what is happening in the political landscape right now. We don’t need to mention any names from our neighbours to the South, or our neighbours in Ontario. If those type of people can get elected, everything we have fought for can be taken away.”
It isn’t new that some view the advancement of homosexual rights as infringing on their own, Etkin said.
“It has been the fight all along. You have the right to your religious views, but your right to your religious views stop when it impacts my life and my right to live. It’s still and always will be a battle. I think what is happening in the states right now, is no different than what happened in the 1930’s in Germany. The difference though, is that because of communications we know what is happening.”
With the battle now surrounding gender identify Etkin sees a repeat of the rights battle she has fought most of her life.
“Where we are at this point in history around rights for trans folks are where we were at 20 years ago for gay and lesbian and bisexual voices and I think that those are voices that are really important to hear. We need to be hearing voices of the most marginalized and empowering those voices.”
On January 22, the United States supreme court upheld president Donald Trump’s policy restricting those who identify as transgender from military service.