While Vancouver is gearing up to celebrate Pride locally, the city held its third annual LGBT panel discussion at Vancouver City Hall on July 28 to think globally and address what Vancouver can do to help international LGBT individuals who seek refuge in our city. The discussion was moderated by Coun. Tim Stevenson, who is the council liaison to the LGBTQ Advisory Committee and who led the 2014 Host City Pride House Mission to Sochi in February to advocate for LGBT rights.
Vancouver City Hall planning and development general manager Brian Jackson reminded attendees that, in light of antigay legislation in countries like Russia, India, Nigeria, and Uganda, many LGBT people around the world don't experience what Vancouverites do.
"It's more than incredibly sad to know that people in countries around the world are being forced to live in fear by their own governments," he said. "As we celebrate our freedoms in this week, in this city, it is important to reflect upon the fact that the values of inclusion and diversity that we see as sources of strength in Vancouver are not universally recognized. A great advantage and responsibility of our freedom is our ability to support those who struggle against institutionalized oppression. One of the ways that we can help is by providing support to people seeking refuge from discrimination and violence."
One of the speakers, Zdravko Cimbaljevic, was invited as an International Grand Marshall of the Vancouver Pride parade in 2013 for being the first publicly out gay man in Montenegro and running a LGBT organization for three years. After death threats, attacks, and harassment in his native country, he sought asylum in Vancouver.
As he spoke about his experience of being a refugee in Vancouver, he said he feels it's important to reconsider stereotypes of refugees as a burden; he pointed out that he has much to offer, and that organizations like the volunteer-run Rainbow Refugee, which he is a board member of, need financial support.
"The City of Vancouver needs to step up and help Rainbow Refugee, help us with core funding of at least one person who should be full[-time] staff and have our offices so we can really have a nice platform when a refugee arrives in Canada, we don't need to gather around and run because we have our own jobs and our own lives," he said.
Chris Morrissey, who cofounded LEGIT: Canandian Immigration for Same-Sex Partners and Rainbow Refugee, said she wants all of the Lower Mainland, not just Vancouver, to consider becoming a "sanctuary city" for refugees.
She pointed out that housing is an issue that needs to be addressed as most refugees can't afford to live in Vancouver but in the suburbs.
"How can Vancouver be more supportive of queer refugees when they don't live in Vancouver?"
She added that many refugees have no source of income until they make a claim. Cuts to health care and mental health services, and the acceleration of claim process timeline (making it harder to prepare a claim) are compounding the number of challenges that refugees face.
She explained that many LGBT claimants, who have lived closeted lives in the past, can find it difficult to provide documentation supporting their sexual orientation.
Lawyer Rob Hughes, who has fought for LGBT equality and is a cofounder of Rainbow Refugee, echoed Morrissey's point.
"To prove someone's sexual orientation when they have been trying all of their life to try and hide that in their own country—things like medical reports, police reports—all of those things have to be obtained," he said.
Lawyer barbara findlay, who is an out lesbian, praised the city for the gains made for LGBT communities by the Vancouver Parks Board and the Vancouver School Board this past year.
Yet she reminded attendees that LGBT people remain overrepresented among the homeless, sex workers, suicidal youth, and addicted people. She emphasized that it's important to remember that queer people are amongst other populations to avoid potentially fatal errors such as putting a queer refugee claimant in a house with claimants from the same country who may be discriminatory towards or even assault the queer individual.
She recommended that every civic publication should have an indication that Vancouver welcomes queer people and provide information about where they can find resources (which Morrissey had explained that many refugees have difficulty finding or are not sure where to look).
Other panel members included Fred Hitchcock, who served as a member of the Refugee Protection Board of Canada and is in a same-sex marriage, and Fred Kabali, who escaped Uganda in 2010 (under the threat of being imprisoned for being gay) and came to Vancouver as a refugee in 2013.
The panel discussion was followed by an official Pride Week proclamation by Mayor Gregor Robertson and a flag-raising ceremony on the steps of City Hall.