With a lineup that included the likes of same-sex marriage opponent Margaret Somerville and controversial author Tom Flanagan, you’d expect sexuality to come up somewhere in the agenda during the 2015 Manning Networking Conference.
The annual event is billed as bringing together Canadians to develop and create a stronger conservative movement and has sometimes been cheekily described as Woodstock for Canadian conservatives.
And while the usual suspects — like the anti-abortionists — were there with booths to hawk their materials to conference-goers, speakers and attendees were very quiet when it came to discussing issues surrounding sexuality.
Aside from a few audience questions and brief mentions by panellists, little was said about the new federal act meant to regulate sex work. Ontario’s new sex education curriculum? Barely a peep. Bill C-279, the trans rights bill? Not a word. Same-sex marriage, legalized now over 10 years ago, is a topic non grata.
One person who wasn’t afraid to point this out was political commentator Rex Murphy, who was the first speaker of the first day of the conference. He told the audience that conservatives “muffle their appreciation or speak in code.”
There certainly was a code, if you listened closely enough. “Family,” a unit much lauded throughout the two days, was implied to be a married man and woman. “New values” was an oblique term trotted out to describe anything from changes to Canada’s laws around sex work to same-sex marriage. When Defence Minister Jason Kenney gave the final keynote speech on March 7, he mentioned all of the groups that have come to Canada to escape persecution — he did not mention LGBT refugees, despite his own work reaching out to LGBT communities when he was minister of immigration.
Fred Litwin — one of the organizers of the Fabulous Blue Tent parties for gay conservatives and their friends during federal Conservative Party of Canada conventions — thinks that the only gay issues to focus on now are those overseas.
“For me right now, the gay project is almost finished in the sense of we have same-sex marriage, we’ve got all the rights that everybody else has in this country,” he says. “Ok, time to move on.”
The pessimistic view is that with an election coming within the next seven months, the Tories have to toe a thin line — they have to still be conservative while not saying or doing anything that could potentially drive more socially liberal voters into the arms of the Liberals or the NDP.
But looking around at the younger conference attendees, all under the age of 30, sharply-dressed and slightly more racially diverse than their older conservative counterparts, it occurs that the same generational shift is happening amongst the Conservatives as it is nation wide. If the younger attendees didn’t know at least one openly gay person before the arriving at the conference, they could at the very least name an LGBT TV or film character, or politician.
Jamie Ellerton, another Fabulous Blue Tent co-founder, ran for the Progressive Conservatives in the 2014 Ontario provincial election. He points out that as more and more states legalize same-sex marriage in the United States, many young Americans, like many young Canadians, no longer see gay rights as an issue. “As society continues to progress, as more people are visible and continue to come out, they are interacting more with LGBT people, it will continue to erode those walls that are up.”
Ellerton believes youth bullying is a continuing domestic issue, and adds that he wants to see the trans rights bill passed. He also recently wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star in support of Ontario’s revised sex education curriculum, decrying the responses of several candidates for leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party.
“Nobody involved in a political party agrees with their party 100 percent of the time,” he says. “But there are generally a loose set of agreeable values that people agree to when moving forward to proceed and there are ways to operate behind the scenes.”
Within the party itself, it’s clear there are federal Conservatives who vote along more socially liberal lines — 18 broke from the party ranks to vote in favour of Bill C-279, despite documents uncovered by Vice that showed that party leadership had issued talking points directing MPs to say they didn’t support it.
There will always be social conservatives. But as demographics shift, so will the conversation. And when the Manning Networking Conference inevitably does have to put sexuality back on the agenda, the debate will likely be hard fought — but for both sides.
But if the 2015 Manning Networking Conference is any indication, it won’t be a debate that will be had during the 2015 federal election.