Janis Irwin on the power of community, self and acceptance
When I reflect on my journey, I realize I have been pretty lucky and privileged.
I grew up in a fairly conservative small town in rural Alberta, but it was a relatively smooth ride for me. I had access to great schools and great teachers. For me, it was a fine place to grow up.
From a fairly young age, I have always been interested in politics. Ironically, I began my political journey when I was a teenager by volunteering for the conservative candidate in my hometown of Barrhead.
My world expanded when I went to university in Edmonton. After graduating, I began my career in education, back in rural Alberta, as a high school teacher and vice-principal in communities that were just as small and conservative as my hometown. I enjoyed those experiences, but I eventually moved to Edmonton for an opportunity to work for Alberta Education in curriculum development.
As I settled into my new home in a very progressive urban part of Edmonton, and as I began to explore and embrace my own identity and sexuality, it became abundantly clear to me that there weren’t a lot of people in public office like me.
In fact, when I was first elected as an MLA in 2019, I was the only openly queer person out of the 87 other elected officials in the Alberta Legislature, but not the first, as the Alberta NDP had elected three openly queer MLAs in 2015.
Certainly, since coming out, I have experienced a lot of homophobia and hate, mostly on social media. It used to impact me a lot more, especially when it was about my appearance, my gender, and my sexuality. I’m at a place now where I’ve come to understand that it’s not about me. It’s about these people who may be struggling themselves and dealing with their own issues.
And while I’ve been pretty fortunate to feel mostly safe and loved in my role, we must talk about the fact that there has been an emboldening of folks who are willing to be overtly discriminatory and violent towards the 2SLGBTQ+ community. And we are seeing more provincial governments across Canada attacking the rights of queer and trans youth.
So, although I can look back positively at my experience growing up in rural Alberta, I also often reflect back and think about kids who may have been struggling and grappling with issues of their sexuality or their identity. They wouldn’t have had a safe space, and I know I didn’t do enough when I was a teacher to support them. It’s one of the things that has motivated me on my political journey, to work to make sure that kids are safe no matter where they live.
The research is clear: inclusive, welcoming schools help all students.
They uplift the entire school community. I know that I can’t change the past; I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t a stronger voice for vulnerable kids when I was a teacher. But I can very much do better now and I’m motivated — more than ever — to keep using my voice and my platform to do all I can to ensure that all kids are safe in schools.
I also have to acknowledge that I’m a white cisgender person who has the privilege to call people out, and I’m in a place where I can be open and unapologetic about who I am.
There are a lot of people, young people especially, out there who can’t. They’re not free to be themselves yet or they’re not able to be visible yet.
And while we must acknowledge the rise in homophobia and transphobia, I think it’s important to point out the positives too. That’s queer joy, to me.
One example is the town of Ponoka’s first ever Pride celebration this summer. Myself and two other queer MLAs, Brooks Arcand-Paul and Court Ellingson, headed to Ponoka to join them. This was in a community where they had just elected in May a UCP MLA who said despicable things about the trans community, including literally comparing trans kids to dog feces. Many were definitely hurting, but they took a moment of pain and responded with love. And that’s something to celebrate.
There are queer and trans people everywhere. We’re not going away. We’re your neighbours, your friends, your community members.
Until all of us are safe, none of us are safe.
What happened in Ponoka during Pride is an awesome example that we don’t resign ourselves to fear. We face the fears head-on. And we respond with love knowing that a better world, where all of us are safe, loved, and valued, is possible.