To kick off pride week, my choir had its annual spring concert. This year was extra special in that it marked 20 years since the Rainbow Harmony Project came to be. 20 years since a group of people came together and decided they were tired of living in hiding, tired of lying and swallowing their true selves for fear of what the truth could bring. Those people wanted to make change and bring social justice through song. As we reflected on our history and sang, We Shall Overcome, to a packed house at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, some of us had tears in our eyes. Life in Winnipeg has indeed improved for the LGBTQ+ community in the last 20 years. We can get married, have children and live safely and openly in our city. Things are getting better.
Or at least things are getting better in Canada (especially in the cities). The freedoms we enjoy here in Winnipeg, are sadly not shared around the world. While we were practicing for our concert, the Kenyan high court voted that gay sex should continue to be illegal (punishable by 14 years in jail), and the leader of the United States of America proposed legislation that would allow homeless shelters the right to turn away trans people. This is the first step in undoing the protections that were established for LGBTQ+ people in the US in 2012 under the Equal Access Rule. There are still more than 70 countries where gay relationships are illegal and 8 countries where gay sex is an offence punishable by death (death by stoning in two cases.) Maybe things aren’t changing quite as quickly as we thought. Or as much as we had hoped.
Sometimes the distance that we still have to go as a global community is heartbreaking. I can’t even imagine being in a community where ‘corrective rape’ was seen as the appropriate way of dealing with women who love women. To realize that there are countries in the world where I could never travel, where for just being myself, I could lose my children, my freedom and even my life. I have the choice to stay in a country where I am safe, but what about those who were not born so lucky?
For some of those people, the Rainbow Railroad offers their only chance at survival. This organization was founded in 2006 to help LGBTQ+ people escape state sponsored violence and is saving lives by organizing travel for people living in some of the most dire and dangerous situations. Named after the Underground Railroad, which helped people fleeing slavery in the United States reach safety in Canada from 1793-1865, the Rainbow Railroad is helping a new generation of people reach safety and the chance for a new life.
For those of us already living in Canada, the Rainbow Railroad offers a tangible way that we can reach out and help save a life. The first step of course is to build awareness. Even though they are a Canadian organization based out of Toronto, I had never heard of them until this past week and now I hope to help as many people hear about them as possible. An acquaintance on Twitter (brilliant author and activist Robin Stevenson @robin_stevenson), sent me a link to a recent 60 Minutes episode about the organization and I felt hope flow into my heart as the song, We Shall Overcome, rang out in my head. Much the way my choir started, as a group of people who wanted to bring more equality and social justice into their lives and the world, the Rainbow Railroad has come together to reach out and bring people to safety who are otherwise facing certain death. They are not facing death because of war, or famine, they are facing premeditated murder because of who they love.
For just a minute, close your eyes and imagine the feeling of being in love. Feel the butterflies fluttering in your stomach, the warm giddiness that races through your head, the almost painful anticipation when you might see the one that you love. Now, imagine if you lived in a country where that feeling is coupled with the fear of being, stabbed, beaten, raped or tortured. Imagine knowing that to express your love in any way would not only endanger your life, but the life of the one you adore. There would be no one you could safely tell or trust, your friends, family, coworkers, police and community would be a source of danger to you if they knew that you carried this love in your heart.
Now, if you were able to imagine any of that, you should be able to feel the tangible relief and hope that the Rainbow Railroad can bring. It is an organization that directly saves lives. The problem of course is that there are more lives to save than resources to save them. This is where all of us can help. Donate, volunteer, reach out let people know that they are valued, respected and cared for regardless of who they love or how they identify.
In the midst of pride celebrations it is easy to get caught up in being fabulous and having fun and forget that the rights we enjoy are not universal. Pride should be a time to celebrate, but it should also be a time to bring support and awareness to the LGBTQ+ global community that is still suffering under the weight of condemnation from their friends, family and community. Pride events in big cities are a beacon of hope for many, a sign that there is acceptance out there, even if it doesn’t feel attainable. Pride celebrations need to continue for the same reasons that we need to have International Women’s Day, Orange Shirt Day, Holocaust Memorials and so many other days of celebration and remembrance, because we just aren’t there yet. But together, We Shall Overcome, Someday.