A 'right to our rage,' an 'obligation to love:' Aidan Johnson, city's 1st LGBTQ councillor

Aidan Johnson says it changed him in "fundamental ways" to be Hamilton's first openly LGBTQ city councillor. But he has faith there will be more.

'City hall has a complicated history on questions of gender and sexuality'

"We have a right to our rage," says Aidan Johnson. "And we have an obligation to love. That can be very complex to keep in balance sometimes." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Aidan Johnson says it changed him in "fundamental ways" to be Hamilton's first openly LGBTQ city councillor. But he has faith there will be more that follow him.

Johnson, a lawyer, was elected in 2014 to serve Ward 1 in Hamilton's west end. He planned to run again this fall but got a job as executive director of the newly merged Niagara Community Legal Clinic.

Being a queer person in politics, he says, requires balancing anger with love.

The queer liberation movement was "about many things," but the most fundamental was love. 

"We have a right to our anger. We have a right to our rage. And we have an obligation to love. That can be very complex to keep in balance sometimes."

We asked Johnson about his experience over the last four years. Here's what he had to say.

Johnson moved that the transgender pride flag be raised alongside the rainbow flag for Pride month. From left: Matthew DeSousa, Mr. Pride of 2016; Tasha Stevens, Empress of Hamilton 2016; Mayor Fred Eisenberger; Johnson; Jill Davies, transgender advocate who attended the first Hamilton Pride in 1995, and Monique Taylor, Hamilton Mountain MPP. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Is it still noteworthy, do you think, to have an openly LGBTQ city councillor?

There still is a significant phenomenon of systemic homophobia, and systemic biphobia, and systemic transphobia in our culture. So long as that systemic oppression is part of our culture, it will continue to be noteworthy when an out queer person is elected. That's a sad fact.

What difference do you think it makes having an openly LGBTQ voice on city council?

There is value in leaders being able to speak from experience about important questions on the table. So when council is discussing issues of bigotry, issues of systemic discrimination, I do think it's helpful for women and minorities to be represented among the leaders.

Do you think there's something lacking, now that no openly LGBTQ city councillors have been elected?

We did elect Cam Galindo in Hamilton. Our Hamilton public school board gained its first out queer trustee. I think the election of Cam is very important and wonderful. I have high hopes for Cam at the school board. My spirits are also lifted by the election of Lyra Evans, the first out transgender politician in Canada. Lyra was elected trustee in Ottawa for the Ottawa public school board.

"The election of Cam is very important and wonderful," Johnson says. Galindo, 23, is a trustee-elect for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. (Cam Galindo)

Is city hall a friendly place to openly queer?

City hall has a complicated history on questions of gender and sexuality. It was a great privilege to serve as the first openly queer politician in Hamilton and Niagara. It was definitely a positive experience.

Can you speak to what challenges you expected versus what you actually experienced?

One of my goals as councillor was to clarify the city's human's rights responsibilities specifically around the trans community. That goal that I came in with wound up working out in a much different way than I expected.

In my first year as councillor, a trans woman took legal action against the city after a city employee removed her from the female bathroom at our city-owned bus terminal downtown. That legal action, to make a long story short, led to our trans protocol and led to the, for me, life-changing experience of being involved with the development and implementation of the trans protocol. So things did work out differently than I expected.

The trans protocol in Hamilton brought our local trans and queer community into conversation with the municipality as it never has been before. It was hard and traumatic for the queer community and the trans community. We are beginning to address our collective trauma now, together. It's a healing process.

It's actually been extraordinary. In the past four years, I've seen love animate the city in new ways. I've seen love come alive in Hamilton in ways that I never actually anticipated. It's been inspiring that way. When I say it's been life changing, as a non-transgender queer person, for me to have the privilege of working with the transgender community over the past four years has been a spiritual and rewarding experience unlike any I've ever had. It changed me in fundamental ways.

Early in his term, Johnson toured all the city's major services. That included spending a morning on a waste collection crew with Terry Boyd. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

What advice would you give an LGBTQ candidate who wants to serve on city council?

I'm trying to think of advice I would give that would be different from the advice I would give any candidate.

I would certainly say remember the roots of our movement. The queer liberation movement is about many things. Arguably, the most fundamental thing the queer movement has been about historically, and continues to be about, is love. Literally, the right to love, and the right to express love in an authentic way.

When we keep the principle of love in mind, much flows from that. We have a right to our anger. We have a right to our rage. And we have an obligation to love. That can be very complex to keep in balance sometimes. Nonetheless, we have an obligation to maintain the balance, with love ultimately ruling over all.

Johnson, shown at his 2014 swearing in, only served one term. He originally intended to run again but got a job as executive director of the Niagara Community Legal Clinic. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

How can we make it easier to have a more diverse set of voices around the council table?

Courageously persevering with the trans protocol, and courageously persevering with the urban Indigenous strategy, will help trans people and Indigenous people in our city, and will hopefully encourage trans and Indigenous people to run for office.

I also think the trans protocol and urban Indigenous strategy are liberating for non-trans and non-Indigenous people. If we can make a city that is welcoming and whose municipal spaces are equally accessible to all, that will ultimately empower all people and encourage members of marginalized communities — and women — to run for office in greater numbers and win those elections.

This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca