Fae Johnstone says "nothing ever could have prepared" her for the barrage of online harassment she endured after being featured in an International Women's Day campaign for Hershey Canada. 

The 27-year-old transgender activist was one of five women featured on limited-edition chocolate bars in March. 

She said that within 72 hours of the campaign's launch she became the subject of mass online hate that included death threats, encouragement of suicide and self-harm. Her personal information was released online. 

Hershey hired private security guards to stand watch outside her home for seven days, she said.

"It's had a horrifying impact on my mental health," Johnstone said in an interview.

"It's staggering to realize that my simple existence as a trans woman in public spaces, and with somewhat of a platform in the eyes of Canadian public and in the media, triggers an ongoing onslaught of hateful comments and rhetoric that (creates) ongoing concerns about my everyday safety."

She's not alone in her concern. 

Experts and LGBTQ community members worry about the normalization of hate and its impact on mental health and safety, as online rhetoric spills into the real world. Advocates say more needs to be done to address LGBTQ safety amid the rise of hate.

"We need to meet this moment head on because it says something about who we are as a country if we let this hate take hold just like we're seeing it begin to," said Johnstone.

There's been a surge in police-reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Statistics Canada data released in March revealed an almost 64 per cent increase from 258 incidents in 2020 to 423 in 2021.

But Olivier Ferlatte, professor at the University of Montreal and a research scientist at the Community-Based Research Centre, said such statistics likely understate the scale of the problem.

"Many people and the LGBTQ community, for various reasons, will not feel safe to go to the police to disclose hate crimes," he said, citing lack of trust in police.

Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity, said hateful sentiment surrounding LGBTQ people is "not new."

"It's just elevated and feels new because we have new tools at our disposal, including the internet," she said.

Johnstone said much of the hate she receives is online and, while such comments may not be meaningfully represented in police data, the rhetoric has real effects.

"All of this comes together to increase the prevalence of hate and harassment in trans and queer people's everyday lives from greater scrutiny of gender nonconformity and gender diversity, just like what we saw in Kelowna recently with slurs and hate directed at a young cis-girl for having a pixie haircut of all things," she said.

Johnstone was referring to an incident earlier this month where a man interrupted a B.C. elementary school track meet to wrongly suggest that a nine-year-old competitor was transgender and he demanded proof she was born biologically female.

The confrontation, which received international news coverage, resulted in the man being banned from school premises and events. His behaviour was condemned by politicians including B.C. Premier David Eby, and complaints triggered an investigation by police.

Heidi Starr, one of the girl's mothers, said her daughter was born female and uses she/her pronouns. She asked that the girl not be identified.

Starr said she believes anti-LGBTQ rhetoric online "emboldened folks in the anti-queer community to the point that they feel as though they have every right to interfere with events such as the track and field event."

Owusu-Akyeeah agreed.

"What decision makers aren't doing very well is trying to understand and address what is happening online because it definitely is having real-world impacts, which makes it much scarier to be out and loud as queer and trans people," she said.

Mental health professionals warn that anti-LGBTQ hate is having an impact beyond individual victims.

Sarah Kennell, the national director of public policy with the Canadian Mental Health Association, said the organization is "really concerned about the ripple effects" that the normalization of hate crimes is having on LGBTQ communities across Canada. 

"As a mental health organization, you see the impacts of what that rising shame and stigma and discrimination contributes to, and we're sounding the alarm bell," she said in an interview. 

It may manifest as "increased rates of stress, anxiety, depression, suicidality, panic attacks, sleeplessness, and a range of other physical and emotional symptoms that come with not being able to live your true identity," Kennell said.

Canadian Social Survey data released by Statistics Canada in March said that in the fourth quarter of 2022, nearly 42 per cent of LGBTQ2+ identifying persons reported having "fair or poor perceived mental health" in comparison to about 19 per cent for non-LGBTQ2+ people.

"We need to ensure that trans folks in particular have access to the health resources that they need to be well and be safe and be supported," Kennell said.

While some strides are being made to combat anti-LGBTQ sentiment, experts and advocacy organizations say more needs to be done.

Michael Kwag, director of policy development at the Community-Based Research Centre, cited a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision to dismiss a defamation suit brought in 2018, calling it "a significant win for queer communities."

The lawsuit had been brought by Barry Neufeld, a former school board trustee in Chilliwack, B.C., against the former president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, Glen Hansman. 

Hansman, a gay man and teacher, called Neufeld's views bigoted, transphobic and hateful, after Neufeld said on Facebook that allowing children to "choose to change gender is nothing short of child abuse."

Kwag said the decision to throw out Neufeld's case "is affirming the right and public benefit in speaking out against transphobic and homophobic rhetoric."

"At this time, when we're seeing a lot of increased prejudice and misinformation that's targeting LGBTQ+ people and communities, this decision is really a cause for celebration," Kwag said.

The federal government announced last week that it would be investing $1.5 million in emergency funding to ensure Pride festivals across the country remain safe.

Kwag said this marked another step forward but will also require longer-term investment. 

"We need solutions and support and responses that carry us into the future beyond just this pride season," he said.

Johnstone, who is president of the Society of Queer Momentum, said the organization has launched a campaign calling on the federal government to better address queer safety. 

It seeks the appointment of a special representative to address anti-2SLGBTQIA+ hate, funding to combat disinformation targeting the community, and community representation in the government's upcoming National Action Plan on Combatting Hate. 

"I don't know a single trans person, or even a single gay person, who doesn't have a story of a hate incident that they personally experienced," Johnstone said.

"The trauma and coping with hate is a heartbreakingly defining feature of queer and trans existence and that's just the tip of the iceberg."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2023.