6 min

Age of consent: It’s a youth issue

Andrew Brett leads fight against age of consent rise

Credit: Tony Fong photo

Brett is blushing at the question. The bashful expression makes him look much younger than his 22 years. But it’s somehow appropriate that the young man who has become the gay face of the fight against the proposed new age of consent law is reluctant to answer a question about his own first sexual experience. It shows he hasn’t become cynical about sex. Or politics. And especially not about activism.

“What do you mean by sexual experience?” Brett asks. “Kids do all sorts of things.”

Eventually, Brett admits that the new law proposed by the Harper government, which will raise the age of consent from 14 to 16, couldn’t have been used against him.

“Under the changes, it wouldn’t have affected me. I had a boyfriend in Grade 11, and he was the same age as me.”

But Brett is only too well aware that if the bill becomes law — it recently passed second reading and is now before the justice committee — it will affect many of today’s youth.

“There’s definitely going to be an effect on access to sex education, to medication. Abortion rights will be attacked. It will criminalize relations that by definition are legal, and adults who prey on youth will do so anyway.

“In England, where the age of consent is 16, studies have shown that girls who are under 16 are six times more likely to say fear will keep them from accessing information and birth control.”

Brett says that growing up in eastern Toronto, he knew he was gay from a young age, before he actually came out at 15.

“I knew as far back as I can remember. It was just so stressful keeping it a secret. When I did come out, it went over reasonably well, compared to the horror stories I’ve heard. In my high school, it was accepted surprisingly well for a Catholic school. Of course, we had homophobic teachings. But I felt like, although a lot of the teachers weren’t explicitly supportive, they weren’t condemning me.”

Brett decided to go to the University Of Western Ontario to study political science, a decision he says he regrets. London, he found, wasn’t really to his liking.

“I did find it hostile to anyone who wasn’t a rabid Christian homophobe.”

But although he left Western after two years, it was in London that Brett joined the New Democratic Party and found himself involved for the first time in a federal election. He volunteered for the campaign of Irene Mathyssen, who was running against Pat O’Brien, whose main platform was opposing gay marriage. Brett took time off, was hired on to the campaign, and learned all about election organizing.

After moving back to Toronto, Brett was drafted by Mathyssen to work on a provincial byelection in Scarborough. And then in the last federal election, with the NDP short of experienced candidates, he found himself as the party’s candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Scarborough-Rouge River.

“It was so much fun. You’re mostly campaigning to make a point and bring up issues that should be brought up. The only all-candidates meeting was held at a high school. I was the only candidate to say I support same-sex marriage, and I was amazed at the applause. The old men were surprised that their opposition to same-sex marriage didn’t have support among young people.”

Brett finished third in the riding, but it helped to hone his political instincts, especially around issues near and dear to Canadian queers, including age of consent.

Brett says he was concerned about the issue as soon as Vic Toews, the Conservative justice minister, began talking about the possibility of raising the age. Brett says he felt obligated as a politically engaged young gay man to get involved immediately.

“I knew a few people from CLGRO (the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario) and the Sex Laws Committee. We decided that the best thing to do would be to get a group of youth and youth advocates together.”

The result was the Age Of Consent Committee, which Brett helps run between doing outreach for the University Of Toronto’s student council and his involvement with the NDP.

“We started trying to get information out to groups. Then when the bill was introduced, we saw groups like the Canadian AIDS Society and Egale come out against it. We kind of shifted into a lobbying mode.”

Unfortunately, part of that lobbying has had to be directed at his own political party.

Brett says he was deeply worried when Joe Comartin, the NDP’s justice critic, said the party would support the bill.

“Our justice critic had spoken, saying the party was in favour of it, without any consultation. The reason I was so initially concerned was the media was saying the NDP would support it, no questions asked.

“The Ontario youth wing came out against the bill and the federal youth wing came out against the bill. The youth of the party mobilized.”

But Brett says older members of the party were determined to shut them down, and used procedural manoeuvering at the party convention in September to make sure opposition to the bill was forced off the agenda.

The party has moved somewhat off its support for the proposed law subsequently. Queer MPs Libby Davies and Bill Siksay are demanding that youth groups across the country be consulted in committee hearings, and even Comartin has agreed that he will work towards ensuring that any bill equalize the age of consent for anal sex, which is now 18.

Most significantly, the party’s national council has recommended the caucus vote against the bill. However, party leader Jack Layton has said MPs will still be free to vote in favour of the law in parliament.

“Although they’ve come to a better position, I wonder why they didn’t listen to us earlier,” says Brett. “I think they’re definitely scared of how it’ll look. If I wanted to vote for a party that would just go along with what the majority wanted, I wouldn’t be a member of the NDP.”

Brett takes encouragement from the support of former MP Svend Robinson, now a member of the NDP federal executive. Robinson recently sent a letter to NDP MPs, urging them to vote against the law (see page 15).

“Imagine the terrible experience that a young person will be put through if this law is enacted,” wrote Robinson. “It is discovered that their older sexual partner had sex with them. Their partner is criminally charged, and they are ordered to attend court and testify against their partner. The trauma and pain this will inevitably entail can surely not be in the best interest of young people. It is for this reason among many others that so many of our traditional allies in this field, including Planned Parenthood Federation, the Canadian AIDS Society, Egale, and many others have opposed this bill.

“We should listen to their voices. Our support for this bill risks alienating and driving away many traditional NDP supporters, including progressive youth and others.”

But Brett believes many in Robinson’s older generation of queer activists have ignored the needs of youth in favour of working on equality issues, such as gay marriage.

“I think a lot of the older generation are afraid to take this on for fear of being called paedophiles. And I think there’s a definite focus on the part of the gay and lesbian community on those who can afford to hire lawyers and have political clout. I feel like we need to be supporting grassroots activism, which doesn’t have those resources. Instead we’re pumping money into the fight for same-sex marriage.”

But whatever happens with the age of consent, and even with the problems with the NDP, Brett has a clear idea of where his future lies. He was recently elected to the executive of the provincial NDP, and is certain politics will remain part of his life.

“Everything is political, no matter what. I know it’s a clichéd phrase, but I believe it.”

And for some in that older generation, that attitude and the emergence of young queer activists like Brett is a positive sign. Tom Warner of CLGRO has worked with Brett on setting up the Age Of Consent Committee.

“In terms of the younger queer movement, it’s really important that young people take a lead role. Andrew has a good vision in terms of what he wants. He has the ability to organize in drawing in other youth activists. It certainly offers a lot more room for hope that there is a new younger generation of activists.

“The focus has been almost exclusively on recognizing equality and then same-sex marriage. It wasn’t a central issue that really spoke to youth’s needs.”

Brett certainly agrees that marriage isn’t a priority for queer youth. Asked if he’s in a relationship, Brett hesitates, then takes his current reading material out of his backpack: a paperback copy of The Ethical Slut.

“It makes some good points about whether seeking monogamy is the right thing for everyone. I’m enjoying reading about these things.”