Right now it seems Canada is having one of those moments where all of America seems temporarily fascinated by it, and it’s all because of new prime minister and photogenic nice guy Justin Trudeau.
Since winning office last October, Trudeau has captured headlines and social media posts around the world with a series of well-timed photo-ops promoting LGBT causes like Pink Shirt Day (a Canadian anti-bullying/anti-homophobia event), appeared in Vogue, and is even half of an internet-created bromance/slash-fic epic with Barack Obama.
It’s all seeming to give liberal-minded Americans exactly what they’re desperate for right now: an anti-Trump.
But hype aside, Trudeau still has a lot to prove when it comes to LGBT issues.
Although the legal and political situation in Canada for LGBT people is well advanced — most queer Americans would likely be envious — significant gaps for basic rights remain, especially for trans Canadians.
There’s a disconnect between the headlines Trudeau is able to grab and the actual accomplishments he’s made in office.
A few weeks ago, gay news sites around the world picked up the story that Trudeau was going to issue a posthumous apology and pardon to the last gay man who was imprisoned indefinitely under Canada’s sodomy law, back in 1967. Trudeau earned a lot of praise for his compassion, but he missed the systemic issue: Canada’s sodomy law remains on the books, with a differential age of consent and an absolute ban on anal sex involving more than two partners.
And although the courts of five provinces have ruled the sodomy law unconstitutional, it is still used to harass gay men across Canada regularly. In addition, vague laws against “obscenity” and “bawdy houses” are still on the books and used to intimidate and persecute queer people. And yet, Trudeau has not said one word about repealing these outdated and unconstitutional laws.
Shortly after the pardon story, Trudeau grabbed headlines again when it was revealed that he and his cabinet sent valentines to a gay man in Edmonton who’d allegedly been the victim of a homophobic prank and discrimination at his job.
Again, the particulars in the case were heartwarming, but they seemed to miss an opportunity to speak to a systemic issue: although gay, lesbian, and bisexual Canadians are explicitly protected under all of Canada’s anti-discrimination and hate crime laws, trans Canadians aren’t.
Trudeau’s Liberal Party made a campaign promise to introduce a law to explicitly protect trans people under the Canada Human Rights Act and the hate crimes provisions of the Criminal Code, but the Liberals have not introduced a bill even though one already exists — it was passed by the last Parliament, but died when the election was called.
Trudeau could also be using his position as prime minister to advocate for inclusion of trans rights in the human rights acts of the three provinces where they’re still not explicitly protected: British Columbia, Quebec, and New Brunswick — all run by Liberal governments that are close with Trudeau’s party. (In Canada, provincial law regulates vastly more activities than federal law does.)
The only other promise the Liberals made to the gay community was an end to the discriminatory ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. Within weeks of taking office, the government had already walked back its pledge, instead proposing to replace it with a one-year deferral, which will effectively keep gay men from being able to donate blood in Canada.
And this is all before getting into more complex issues where the party stance is less clear, such as Canada’s sex work laws (once ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but revised under the previous government) and HIV criminalization.
The world’s media seemed to also be taken by Trudeau’s announcement that he would march in Toronto’s Pride Parade this year, becoming the first prime minister to do so. It isn’t the first time Trudeau pledged to march. That was in 2014, when the Liberal Party even ran a contest on Grindr — yes, really — to celebrate Trudeau marching. In the end, Trudeau left before the parade began. “Get the headline and run” isn’t a new strategy for Trudeau.
As prime minister, Trudeau has four years to make his agenda happen so a slow launch isn’t necessarily the end of the story. But if he truly wants to leave an impact, he’s going to have to start making his legislative pace match the output of his publicity team.
ROB SALERNO is a journalist, playwright, and activist from Toronto, and is currently based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @RobSalerno.