Calling York University a beacon of light, Rev. Brent Hawkes, a civic leader for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community for 25 years, said he was aware of not only the personal significance but also the broader significance of him receiving an honorary degree.
Hawkes, senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto for 30 years, received an honorary doctorate of laws from York during Fall Convocation ceremonies for his social activism on behalf of the LGBT community.
Many LGBT people, he said, would not have believed the day would come when they would have equality before the law, and that one of their own would be getting an honorary degree from York for his activist work, or be appointed a member of the Order of Canada, which Hawkes was in 2007.
Left: Brent Hawkes
“In the 1960s, I thought I was the only person like this, and now I march with a million people on Pride Day. In the 1970s, I left the Maritimes, believing there was no place for me there because I was gay. And this year I went back to New Brunswick to receive their Pioneer of Human Rights Award,” said Hawkes.
"In the 1990s, LGBT people couldn’t visit their partners in intensive care wards of hospitals and they couldn’t marry. On Jan. 14, 2001, I married the first gay and lesbian couples anywhere in the history of the world. Now, the right to marry exists across Canada, Europe and parts of the United States," he said. "There has been a massive shift in public opinion and public policy, laws have been changed, businesses have been changed, health care institutions have been changed.”
Canada has come a long way in thanks to all the people who stood up for what they believed was right, who had the courage to challenge the system, and who were often punished for it. Hawkes credits parents, teachers, human rights commissions and a few religious leaders, as well as politicians who put people’s rights ahead of polls, and lawyers and judges who worked to uphold the Charter of Human Rights, for ensuring LGBT people were treated equally.
That wasn’t always the case. “I’ve had to wear a bulletproof vest on a number of occasions because of death threats. I’ve been beaten by the police; I’ve been assaulted in my church. I’ve been unable to leave my home at times without a body guard,” Hawkes said. “Even today, I sometimes don’t answer the door, unless I know ahead of time that someone is coming. Even today, the front window of our home is covered for security reasons.”
Right: Brent Hawkes (left) receives his honorary doctor of laws degree from President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right) and Chancellor Roy McMurtry
He told the graduands he remains optimistic as people like them move into the legal, business and health care fields, because there is so much more to do. “There are 68 countries in the world where all of us in this room would be arrested for being in a gathering which includes open gay and lesbian people. In 10 of those countries, I would be executed just because of who I am and who I love,” he said.
“We have work to do to ensure equality in law becomes equality in practice. We…will sometimes shout across the barricades and more importantly we will reach across the divides. We must name injustices wherever we see them.” He cautioned, however, against demonizing the opposition of the day. He said that would only serve to block future victories.
“The choice is always between building a barricade and building a bridge,” said Hawkes. “It is amazing how powerful it can be when a one-time enemy becomes a friend.”
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer