Even though Mayor Rob Ford couldn’t make it to the party in city hall's lobby May 16 to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, more than 300 other rainbow-flag-waving folks did.

The Proud of Toronto rally brought speakers and entertainers from across the queer community to generate excitement and support for Pride Toronto (PT) and other vital city programs and services currently at risk. Each defended the festival and spoke of its importance to queers, to tourism, to business and to civic pride.

No-show councillors included Doug Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, James Pasternak and Michael Thompson, to name a few.

The councillors who did join the party were Mike Layton, Gord Perks, Shelley Carroll, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Josh Matlow, Adam Vaughan, Paula Fletcher, Mary Fragedakis, Sarah Doucette, Joe Mihevc, Pam McConnell, Janet Davis and Ana Bailão.

“Whether you are an effeminate boy or a butchy girl, if you wear size 11 stilettos or nothing at all, you are all beautiful,” Wong-Tam beamed.

The mood was festive, as drag queens and leather men mixed with councillors and staff. A row of booths lined the outside walls, promoting community groups like Youth Line and ASAP (the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention).

The speeches were passionate and the message was clear: “This attempt to strip funding from Pride Toronto is a deliberate attempt to destroy the LGBT community. We won’t let that happen,” lawyer Doug Elliott boomed from the stage.

The crowd gave a standing ovation to members of the “unofficial” gay-straight alliance from St Joseph Catholic Secondary School in Mississisauga. The group’s founder, Leanne Iskander, as well as Meagan Smith and Christopher Mckerracher, announced the group will be marching in this year’s Pride parade under the name Catholic Students for GSAs.

The students also talked about how important it is for youth to get their message out. For months, the St Joe's students have been fighting for a GSA but have been repeatedly blocked by their principal. They are now reaching out to other Ontario Catholic students, asking them to march with them.

“Toronto Pride gets a lot of media attention. Not only will audiences watch the event, they will attend the event as well. The crowds at Pride Toronto will allow us to show everyone who we are and what we stand for. Marching in Pride will be great to raise awareness. Catholic school students depend on Pride Toronto and the queer community to help all students,” Mckerracher told the cheering crowd.

GSAs have been in the headlines since January when Xtra reported on a ban on the groups within the Halton Catholic District School Board. In February Xtra revealed -- a fact that was later confirmed by Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) president Nancy Kirby -- that GSAs are banned at every Ontario Catholic school by order of the bishops.

Another touching moment came when Councillor Janet Davis and her son Keith Prestwich, 32, took the stage to talk about his first Pride. “There was music, colour and smiling faces at Pride. I found a family and a community I didn't know I was part of," he said.

Davis vows never to vote against PT funding, nor any other lesbian, gay or trans program or service. Considering the millions of tourists and economic revenue Pride brings to the city, she can’t understand why any councillor would vote to remove support.

“It would be such an embarrassment, I can’t imagine anyone would be associated with it,” she tells Xtra. “Now, I’ve been naive before. I didn’t believe the mayor would privatize everything that wasn’t nailed down. I didn’t believe he would scuttle Transit City. I didn’t believe he could fire TCHC (Toronto Community Housing Corporation) and run this government like he was a king, and he’s gotten away with it. So I don’t underestimate the kind of bully behaviour he’s exhibited surrounding funding for Pride. He’s been able to whip the vote in a way that I find astounding.”

The rally was a show of unity after a rocky two-year saga filled with censorship and scandal for PT. The organization twice tried to force Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) out of the parade. Ultimately, organizers backed down in the face of sustained backlash from free-speech advocates. Then, a motion from Mammoliti last year set out to claw back city money from the festival for not kicking QUAIA out of the 2010 Pride parade.

Councillors were set to debate the issue again on April 20, but because it was Passover, Ford moved the item to May 24 to allow conservative Jewish groups time to mobilize.

Mammoliti now wants PT to provide “a letter that guarantees” QuAIA will not participate in any Pride events, not just the parade. He plans to bring the motion forward at executive committee.

Since QuAIA has already bowed out of marching in the parade, and the city manager’s report determined the phrase "Israeli apartheid" does not violate the city’s anti-discrimination policy, PT co-chair Francisco Alvarez says no guarantee is needed. He also warns that some councillors will ignore the report and barrel ahead with an attempt to remove funding. Ford and Mammoliti still claim that "Israeli apartheid" is hate speech.

Council is trying to withhold about $123,807, plus roughly $300,000 in-kind services like policing and cleanup. If PT is on the hook to pay, Alvarez says the cost could bankrupt the organization and would likely mean the end of World Pride 2014.
 

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