01/12/2018 09:29 EST | Updated 01/12/2018 11:21 EST

London, Ont., mayor apologizes for city denying 1995 Pride weekend

The mayor of a southwestern Ontario city that refused to declare a Pride weekend more than two decades ago apologized Friday for the decision, saying the community could no longer afford to stay silent in the face of homophobia.

Matt Brown, the mayor of London, Ont., said the city had made great strides on LGBTQ rights since the 1995 refusal, but was still plagued by hatred and intolerance.

"For all the grief caused, for all of the injustice, for all of you who were made to feel 'less than,' I am sorry," Brown said from the steps of London's city hall. "Let's acknowledge the hatred, the unfairness, the bigotry, and narrow-mindedness of the past and let's stand together and say, 'no more.'"

In 1995, then-mayor Dianne Haskett declined requests by London gay rights group HALO to officially recognize Pride weekend, prompting the group's president, Richard Hudler, to file a human rights complaint.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission ultimately ruled that Haskett's actions had been discriminatory, and ordered London to officially proclaim a Pride weekend, which it did in 1998.

"I'm happy to see that this apology is being made to the LGBT+ communities," Hudler said moments before Brown spoke.   

"I could not have taken on that battle without the tremendous support I received, not only from HALO but from the members of the public in London and beyond, and even from some city councillors and staff," he added. 

London still has "a long way to go" on LGBTQ rights, Brown said, noting that a member of the local transgender community had taken their own life last year.

The mayor and his staff have all taken, or are taking, special training to ensure city hall is an LGBTQ-positive space, Brown said.

"I have heard some people call my apology political and others call it opportunistic, and that concerns me, it disheartens me," Brown said. "I need everyone here to know that I am apologizing because we simply cannot afford to be silent bystanders any longer."

Brown's apology is long overdue, but means a great deal to the local LGBTQ community, said Andrew Rosser, president of London's annual Pride festival. 

"When you actually have a council and a mayor (in 1995) that say, 'this festival and your group of people are not as equal as the rest of us,' that really negatively affects people," Rosser said. "It made it scary for some people to come out ... I know for a fact that it slowed down the progress of Pride and inclusion in our city and definitely has tarnished our name as a city."

Londoners have embraced Pride, but the festival is still haunted by regular incidents of homophobia and transphobia, Rosser said. Last year, a handful of LGBTQ community members were physically and verbally assaulted during Pride, while a Pride flag was ripped off one couple's home and burned, he noted.

Black, Indigenous and trans members of the LGBTQ community are in particular need of support and protection, Rosser said. 

"Just like every (city) I would say we still have a lot work to do protecting our communities and making everyone feel safe and included."