The expansive Ford family backyard teemed with people, the ground wet and muddy. Ridiculously long lineups for food and beer were sometimes tense as people pushed toward the flaming meat. Classic rock music blared from speakers on the stage.
Ford Fest was not your typical queer event.
But this year Leigh Williams, Lauren Ash and Jacqie Lucas playfully set out to add a touch of pink.
The trio started a Facebook group inviting Toronto queer people to join them in bringing Pride to Mayor Rob Ford’s backyard barbecue, an annual event held at the Ford family home in Etobicoke.
The Facebook event was an instant hit, and word spread quickly once media caught on. In less than a week more than 500 people had responded to the invite saying they'd attend.
But once inside Ford’s backyard on Sept 7, there was not a rainbow flag in sight. Thousands of people mingled awkwardly around Grecian sculptures and garden art. The band, Gently Bent and the Kids, played Pink Floyd.
Activist Anna Penner was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. “Wow, there are a lot of people here, and I don’t know where to find my people. I’ve seen a few [queer folks] walking around like lost lambs trying to find each other
. . . We’re definitely outnumbered.”
. . . We’re definitely outnumbered.”
Williams says the event was never meant to be a protest – they just wanted to make their presence known.
“There was a point where we pulled out some beads to put around our necks, and we elicited all of these stares, like, ‘It’s those people,’” Williams says. “They pointed and said, ‘Gays!’”
Many got in line to meet Ford, who was at the front of the house greeting guests and posing for pictures.
Neville Park, a queer municipal politics blogger, says she didn't hear anything directly homophobic. “Apparently, some people got uncomfortable looks, but that's it. I felt perfectly safe. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed.”
“It was like in the movies when the rich kid's parents are away for the weekend and he throws a totally out-of-control party complete with people falling in the pool. Except with families and rightwing talk-show hosts,” she says.
Williams, Ash and Lucas say they stayed by the stage.
After the official speeches wrapped up, queer activist Roy Mitchell, also a Pride Toronto board member, pulled the women onstage. “It was all very impromptu,” Ash says.
Once onstage, Ash says, they spoke briefly to Ford's mother. “She didn't know who we were, I'm assuming, but she looked somewhat apprehensive. We all shook her hand and Jacqie went in for the hug.”
Ash says she’s pleased that there were no aggressive confrontations. The group would like a chance to continue the dialogue with the Fords.
The next day "there was some post-discussion on our Facebook page that we bowed to conservative pressure and weren't radical enough,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think we held our integrity, but turnout may have dropped when we decided to forgo a group meet and advocated a certain code of conduct.”
In the lead-up to Ford Fest, some rightwing media pundits attacked the plan to bring Pride to Rob Ford, calling the group “troublemakers.” Councillor Doug Ford told a radio station that the family had hired security, just in case there were any “shenanigans.”
Ash says Ford Fest felt political from start to finish, complete with a Ford Nation banner across the back shed.
“To be fair, as you are aware, the whole event was super political, especially during the speeches,” she says. “And we definitely felt singled out for having the nerve to share in that space."
Mayor Ford, who was in court last week fighting a lawsuit alleging that he violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, told the crowd that his election campaign for 2014 “starts today.”