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  • Writer's pictureStacey L. Newman

Milton LGBTQ activist, film director calls for basic human rights for all

July 3, 2016 - Milton Canadian Champion

Grief knows no borders.

On June 12, a gunman walked into Pulse — a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida — and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed and 53 more were injured in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of such a heinous act there is the fallout of ideology scattered into the atmosphere. Violence against members of the LGBTQ community is common in our world. In Canada, we avow to be one of the safest countries in the world for members of the LGBTQ community. In Ontario, the Province is taking steps to boost gender inclusivity by changing the way it displays sex and gender information on government-issued pieces of identification, including health cards and driver’s licences.

Michelle Emson is interviewed in a cafe in Hamilton, Ontario.

For Milton business owner and LGBTQ activist Michelle Emson, realizing basic human rights and freedoms for all people across the globe is the beating heart of her work.

A film director and videographer by trade, Emson is a human rights activist and the director of two documentary films, which explore the daily lives of and the lack of access to basic human rights faced by members of the LGBTQ community.

Emson didn’t choose to be an activist. Her advocacy was born of experience, necessity, empathy and out of a strong sense of justice.

Emson had long denied herself the freedom of being who she was. Assigned male at birth, Emson identified as a female as early as she can remember.

“For 50 years I was a chameleon,” she said.

Emson grew up in England, attended school, worked, was married, and helped to raise her step children. As an adult, she immigrated to Canada, where she called Halton home.

Emson spent five decades of her life without any sort of vocabulary to describe her experience. This took an immense toll on her self-esteem.

She outwardly identified as a woman for the first time as an adult. Doing so wasn’t easy. There were surprises — good and bad. Relationships were lost — relationships that she still grieves. While some colleagues and friends were immediately supportive and accepting, others were not. This led Emson to "look for a cure."

Decades of living with profound loss and denial left her with feelings of self-hatred. Emson intimately understood the isolation and the trauma caused by discrimination and denial.

In the midst of her pain, however, there was something — something she recognized and explored.

The denial of basic human rights, in particular to members of the LGBTQ community, has created a critical and desperate situation across the globe. Emson was not alone in her pain.

Canada is a leading nation in Pride movements, celebrating diversity and gay rights. Although the nation continues to face challenges, Canadians have begun embracing LGBTQ communities and reveling with its members.

The rights and freedoms of LGBTQ community members in Canada are in stark contrast to those around the globe. There are more than 75 countries that consider LGBTQ status and/or activities a crime; where simply being a member of the LGBTQ community can lead to imprisonment and in some cases death.

In these countries, people in the LGBTQ community are denied the right to exist. They are devalued, denied services, jobs and freedoms. They are met with violence and hostility, and they must live in secret. They are denied their basic human rights.

One such country is Ukraine, where an Equality March in 2012 was cancelled due to threats. The following year, pride activists hosted their inaugural rally in Kyiv, where 100 protesters marched just 300 metres with the support of 1,500 police officers in riot gear.

Emson, a globetrotting filmmaker, became actively involved in the KyivPride movement alongside one of its founders, Olena Semenova. The pair set out to create a film about the movement and founded KyivprideCanada, an alliance between the Ukrainian and Canadian LGBTQ communities.

That’s when Emson found herself on the frontlines of the LGBTQ movement here in the Greater Toronto Area and in Kyiv.

Her film, PRIDE of Ukraine — A Documentary of LGBT Rights, was released internationally in 2015. There was even a Milton screening of the film at the Mohawk Inn, where a rainbow formed just as movie-goers exited the venue. The symbolic movement was caused for impromptu celebration, said Emson.

That year, Emson and Semenova led Ukrainian activists in the Toronto Pride Parade in the hopes of raising awareness in Canada’s large Ukrainian population about the plight of LGBTQ community members abroad.

For Ukrainian gay rights activists, Kyivpride is about simply being allowed to hold their Equality March, a right that has been denied  for years over security concerns, said Emson. Activists have moved forward despite the warnings. They’ve held smaller and unsanctioned marches at risk of great peril to themselves.

Emson’s work is about ensuring that nobody is ever denied basic human rights, no matter where in the world a person lives or is present.

The Milton business owner is quick to point out that her advocacy is about human rights for all people in all countries. Her films are centred on people, who could be members of any society. They depict real courage and the very real fears associated with hiding one’s true identity in a hostile environment.

Emson believes in working together, in unity and peaceful opposition across the globe. She splits her time between Slovenia and Milton. In Slovenia, Emson and Semenova continue to work towards a safely run and openly free KyivPride Equality March. This year the pair, who recently got engaged, is planning a march they hope will be bigger and better than in previous years.

During Emson’s most recent stay in Milton, she took part in a special conference in Ottawa, where she was part of history as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill for the first time.

Today, Emson continues to seek inner peace. She revisits the past with more distance and understanding than ever before, and she looks to a future in which all people can live free from discrimination and fear.

Emson knows how much strength, passion and creativity she has to give — and she pours it into her films in the hopes of building human rights awareness around the globe.

Her second film, Transgender Life in Slovenia, premiered June 29 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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