By Christian Wright
When “Billboard” Chris Elston came to a Toronto elementary school wearing his signature anti-trans sandwich board, parents were worried. Several stood up to the insurance salesman from British Columbia and put up trans pride flags around the school. Elston rose to prominence in the trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) ecosystem for paying for billboards supporting transphobe J K Rowling. Now, he’s taken his show on the road.
Elston’s next announced stop was Ottawa, where he once again planned to visit schools. This time his arrival was met with a large procession of supporters, allies and members of the city’s trans community.
Led by Rainbow Carleton, an advocacy and community group of post-secondary students at Carleton University, organizer Christian Wright explains the genesis of a successful local action in shutting down hate.
Billboard Chris Arrives In Ottawa
We first found out that “Billboard” Chris Elston was visiting Ottawa around 1 pm on Monday after one of our members decided to share photos of Elston outside of local elementary and high schools with his hateful and misleading signs.
Our first reactions were disgust and sadness -- but this quickly shifted into anger and determination.
After a quick search of Elston’s name we found he was not just any old transphobic bigot, but one that had the resources and time to fly across North America to spread his harmful messages, specifically to children and youth.
We also saw that he had paid for numerous anti-trans billboards around the world.
After realizing that Elston was more insidious than originally thought, it became apparent that we could and should do something. We had seen the support for a protest on social media; the outcry of the community against this harassment of our children was palpable.
I think the reason we committed so quickly to be the ones to organize the counter-protest was because many of our members are transgender and non-binary. Ten of our 14 volunteers identify as trans and/or non-binary, and 100 of our 444 members fall under the trans umbrella.
One of these members said something very simple in the middle of our discussion about Elston, “I have the skills to do this.”
Within the hour we were organizing.
We had to plan a significant show of support for the trans community in less than 24 hours as an organization that previously was relatively unknown in the community despite having a large number of members. We had four Twitter followers, all of which were volunteers.
Our first step was identifying local leaders who had large platforms and were amenable to the cause. By securing their support in advance, we ensured that word of our action would spread quickly when it was announced.
A volunteer created a simple poster and we tweeted it out. Our strategy of utilizing the platform of local leaders helped us reach 109,000 people via Twitter about our action.
The next morning and afternoon, more than 200 community members, parents, teachers, and students showed up to protect trans youth. Mindful of the risk that our protest could platform Elston’s message, our plan was to use signs and blankets to disrupt camera access to his transphobic posterboards, and generate enough noise that any interview with him would be useless for news coverage
The counter-protest to #ProtectTransKids from Elston was able to do so much in one day. Not only did we prevent the news from platforming Elston and his hateful messaging, we showed transgender youth and children across the city that their community loves and supports them, and that we’re willing to go to bat for them when it matters most.
We chased him out of our community and showed him that his rhetoric was not welcome in Ottawa.
I think many people would look at this counter-protest as having succeeded in its goal of standing up against a bigot. My perspective is that our biggest achievement is the profound sense of strength and power we were able to impart in many of the youth that came out to defend their trans peers.
What Comes Next?
Rainbow Carleton looks forward to working with various community groups and members to continue advocating for and providing community to 2SLGBTQIA+ people.
We’re establishing Advocacy and Activism Coordinator positions within our association to better serve our members and connecting with school Gender and Sexuality Alliances to empower them to do the same. On top of this, we’re developing a campaign to highlight trans and gender non-conforming youth in Ottawa because at the end of the day, all of this was for and by them.
Our existing events and services to our members are going to be expanded, supported by incoming community donations following our action. Our gender affirming gear program will be able to handle more requests, and our ability to support members in other ways is increasing quickly.
We also plan on contributing to progressive politics in tandem with local organizations like Horizon Ottawa to ensure a substantive and meaningful change in our community.
Overall, the future is bright and exciting for Rainbow Carleton.
Actions like this work. On Facebook, one of Elston’s supporters -- a teacher in the Ottawa Catholic school system -- wrote, “[Elston] said this afternoon was the worst he’s ever experienced. We literally couldn’t even walk through the hundreds of teenagers yelling at us and standing in our way.”
Next up, Elston says he’s potentially returning to Toronto to “get up to some trouble.”
He’s planning on traveling to Texas in November, visiting Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, followed by Los Angeles in December. Trans youth in those cities need our support. And bigots like Chris need to know that when they show up, we show up.
Christian Wright (also known as Xander) is the organizer of Rainbow Carleton, a local association providing community and services to 2SLGBTQIA+ post-secondary students in Ottawa. Follow Xander and Rainbow Carleton on Twitter and Instagram.