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Activists riled over handling of hearings on bawdy house laws

Who dropped the ball?

Don’t blame Libby Davies.

The Vancouver lesbian MP says she tried to get word out to the queer community months ago about an opportunity to tell Parliament that the bawdyhouse laws have got to go.

Davies was responding to a flood of calls and correspondence to her Ottawa office after the Xtra papers sent out an urgent e-mail bulletin to listserv members on Mar 7.

Queer activists across the country are demanding they be heard after being told there are no spots available for presentations as a Parliamentary sub-committee travels the country starting Mar 15.

The Parliamentary Sub-committee on Solicitation Laws is asking Canadians what they think of laws against prostitution. The committee was formed in response to a 1993 motion before Parliament from Davies, who was alarmed at the murder of dozens of sex-trade workers from her East Vancouver riding.

But after hearing about how bawdyhouse laws are used to target both prostitutes and gay bathhouses, Davies approached Canada’s national lobby group, Egale, suggesting they consider making a presentation to the sub-committee. And then she talked it up every time she met gays at events and organizations, she says.

“I did tell Egale about it ages ago,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been putting the word out about it for ages.”

Davies approached Capital Xtra’s editor on the same topic at the Feb 24 Wilde About Sappho celebration in Ottawa. Kirkby then connected Davies with Gilles Marchildon, the executive director of Egale.

That’s the first time he had heard about the opportunity to address the Parliamentary subcommittee, says Marchildon. But he acted on the information and Egale board member Stephen Lock will address the subcommittee in its Edmonton stop Mar 31 on behalf of the organization, he adds.

“I don’t recall [Davies approaching Egale previously]”, says Marchildon. “It’s possible, in all fairness to Libby.”

Marchildon says Egale wants to see the bawdyhouse laws overturned, but is concentrating its energies on seeking intervener status in a court case. Egale’s efforts to get intervener status at an upcoming Montreal case were turned down in early February. Charges against bawdyhouse patrons and staff were recently stayed in Calgary.

Would Egale usually let other gay groups know about important issues like hearings addressing prostitution laws? Marchildon is asked. “Sure,” he says. “We’ve done that in the past.” He cites Svend Robinson’s hate bill, Bill C-250.

At least one Toronto-based gay organization is frustrated by its inability to get on the speaker’s list for the Mar 15 visit of the Parliamentary subcommittee to that city. Peter Bochove, founder of the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century, has widely circulated emails noting his “outrage” that the gay community was not specifically invited to participate, given the history of bawdyhouse laws being used to target gay men’s sexuality.

And, he notes, many in the gay community see the need to abolish laws used against prostitutes.

“No gay groups, no sex activists in Toronto knew about” the subcommittee’s hearings, says Bochove. “These laws impact the gay community too, and we certainly have a right to sit down at that particular table.”

Bochove polled activists about crashing the meeting anyway, but backed off.

“It’s not the right thing to do,” he says. “People on that committee are trying to affect change. But we need to find a way to show our displeasure.”

If Egale was invited to make a presentation, it should have done so, says Bochove. And it should have kept other gay groups informed so they could make local presentations.

“There’s an opportunity there that’s been missed and it’s not Libby’s fault.”

Davies says she’s trying to find another way to ensure the gay community’s opposition to the bawdyhouse laws is incorporated. Almost all time slots have been filled for the tour in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg, she says. And the committee has only a limited budget and so cannot return for a follow-up hearing.

But written submissions are welcome along with presentations to the committee once it returns to Ottawa.