Religion
3 min

Baird’s curious omissions

John Baird gave a foreign policy speech in
London, England, on Monday, and people from across the political spectrum are
swooning over how vigorously he’s defending things like gay rights abroad. And
that’s great; we should be encouraging this kind of talk.

That said, Baird’s speech is full of all
kinds of omissions that colour the message he’s delivering. For starters,
whether he’s just gripped by Iron Lady
fever, or just indulging his preexisting fascination with Baroness Margaret
Thatcher (he did famously name his cat after her, after all), Baird kept
bringing her up in his speech. When it comes to the topic of women leaders,
Baird brings up Thatcher, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada
(Beverley McLachlin, for the record, whom he did not actually name). Which is
odd, because while she’s a fine chief justice, she’s not a political leader
like, say, Kim Campbell, as a Canadian example.

Kim Campbell, as minister of justice before
she became prime minister, eliminated the prohibitions on gays and lesbians
serving in the Canadian Forces back in 1992 – 20 years ago. Thatcher, on
the other hand, passed Section 28 – legislation that made it a criminal offence to
“promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting
homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the
acceptability of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship.” This made it impossible for schoolteachers to address the rampant homophobic
bullying in Britain’s public schools and scarred a generation of UK queers. It is a trauma on the population that still echoes to this day, and even in
last month’s Attitude magazine,
Thatcher is referred to as a “gay-hating, community-destroying Satan.” If Baird
is going to make equality and gay rights a cornerstone of his foreign policy
initiatives, then perhaps he shouldn’t be bringing up Thatcher. Just saying.

After breezing through girls going to
school in Afghanistan, the mission in Libya and the Arab Spring, Baird arrives
at the topic of the Commonwealth reforms and the need to work on
decriminalizing homosexuality in the dozens of countries that still have
those laws on the books.
 

Throughout most
of the Commonwealth Caribbean, colonial-era laws remain on the books that could
impose draconian punishments on gay people simply for being gay. This
contributes to social stigma and violence against gay people. Nowhere is the
plight of gays and lesbians more evident than in Uganda, and no other story
illustrates this plight better than the life and death of Ugandan gay rights
activist David Kato.

While Baird rightly calls out the old
colonial laws, he is silent on the role that modern evangelical churches
play in countries like Uganda. While Baird goes on about
Kato’s life and death, nowhere does he mention that it is the influence of
rightwing evangelical churches that are driving these new laws, no matter that
their influence is well documented. It is a very curious omission, which brings
us to our next point.
 

Our prime minister, Stephen Harper, and I have said time and time again, that Canada will
no longer "go along just to get along." We will speak out on the issues that
matter to Canadians – whether it is the role and treatment of women around the
world, or the persecution of gays, lesbians, bisexual or transgendered persons,
or the cowardly and targeted attacks on those who pray in sanctity of churches,
temples, mosques or synagogues.

And this is where Baird goes into the new
Office of Religious Freedom. He details all kinds of horrible examples of
religious persecution that is taking place, but there seems to be no awareness
on Baird’s part of the connection between religion and the persecution of
queers. Not with how it related to old colonial-era laws and the imperative to
convert the colonized to Christianity, nor with the evangelicals today in
places like Uganda, or the sharia justification in places like Iran. Baird
calls out complacency in defence of human rights but does not put together the pieces when he tries to placate two very different groups in his foreign
policy goals.

Our common cause
must be a universal respect for freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule
of law. We don’t make this our cause to appease our constituencies. We make
this our cause because we have seen the goodness of humankind. And the
prosperity of its people. We know it can exist. For all people. That is what we
strive for. That is what we aim to achieve. That is Canada’s foreign policy.
And we pledge to be a willing partner and a leader by example.

Great words, indeed, but undermined by the use
of optics in place of substantive measures, the approach of calling out homophobic
laws while doing nothing to promote the equality of queers abroad. It remains a
good start, but that’s all it is – a start. It is not leading by example when
we omit truths that don’t fit the narrative or paper over the deeper issues
that need to be explored if we want to make lasting and meaningful change for
human rights and equality abroad.

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