By Suzanne Bowness
As the recently retired prime minister of Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is likely accustomed to addressing crowds larger than those that fit in Convocation Hall. And yet, in opening the first public plenary of this week’s World Pride Human Rights Conference at the University of Toronto, she said despite being known as the world’s first openly lesbian head of government, this was her first speech at an LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) event. The admission was met with thunderous applause.
In her introduction to the panel, law professor and conference co-organizer Brenda Cossman told the audience while Canada has much to be proud of, including its pioneering approval of gay marriage, there is still progress to be made, particularly in continued advocacy for transgender rights, LGBTI youth, and two-spirit identities. Cossman, director of the university’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, is herself a leading scholar in the field, and an activist for the community.
Designed to extend the conference’s reach beyond its 400 international attendees, the daily public plenaries featured “pathbreakers” whose advocacy and example are pivotal to the LGBTI community. This first presentation set a standard—in addition to the former PM, participants included Icelandic novelist Jónína Leósdóttir (Sigurðardóttir’s wife), activist Edith Windsor (most recently famous as the winning plaintiff in the 2013 landmark discrimination case for spousal benefits) and Justice Harvey Brownstone, who is the first openly gay judge in Canada.
As Cossman noted, the presentation took place “in two acts.” In the first act, Sigurðardóttir and Leósdóttir each provided perspectives on being in a public same-sex relationship. In the second, Brownstone interviewed the 85-year-old Windsor about everything from her recent legal win to her marriage to what she thinks is next for the LGBTI community.
In her address, Sigurðardóttir reflected on the struggles she had in common with the LGBTI community, especially the fact that she’d “had to hide her feelings” for a decade and a half, and the gratitude she felt towards activists in Iceland who helped to motivate change in the 1990s. While she and her wife started living together in 2000, they will only celebrate their four-year wedding anniversary this week. The couple changed their status the day after marriage was legalized in Iceland.
Recalling the few ugly letters she received alongside the many supportive, Sigurðardóttir addressed the road ahead for LGBTI activists, quoting unsettling statistics about the number of countries that maintain anti-gay laws and sentences as extreme as death by public stoning. “In many societies a lot has been achieved, but in many the situation is still grave,” she said. “Progress is extremely slow in too many countries.” She ended her address by grasping Leósdóttir’s hand and raising it in victory, to the first standing ovation of the afternoon.
“Hi, I’m the wife,” said Leósdóttir to laughter and applause as she took to the podium after Siguroardottir. She proceeded to detail the couple’s story, as described in her recent memoir Jóhanna and I, a title she chose because she was unable to say the phrase publicly for most of their relationship. She recounted very ordinary process by which the couple fell in love, divorced their then-spouses, and raised their three boys together. She also described the extraordinary position later of being the first same-sex spouse of a head of government, again a position where she encountered support but occasional discrimination.
By way of opening his interview with Edith Windsor, Brownstone asked the woman he called “the Rosa Parks of gay rights” how it felt to be back in Toronto. He was referencing her 2007 trip to marry her partner of 40 years Thea Spyer, who was dying of multiple sclerosis. He officiated at their ceremony. The couple’s story was the subject of the documentary Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement. Brownstone’s conversation ranged through the recent court case, the wedding planning, the documentary, and her comfort level with being a role model (“I love it,” she answered to applause).
He also asked her about the future of the movement, which she answered by encouraging “mainstream gays” to continue to fight for those who still struggled. In particular she echoed the need for continued action for transgendered people, noting that their struggle is not just over marriage licenses but birth certificates.
Said Windsor: “Being back here is full of memories but more than that full of community, and I can see it spreading.”
Photos: John Guatto