News
18 min

City hall’s homophobia problem

An ugly election campaign has dredged up Toronto’s dark side

Credit: John Webster

“Fucking faggots.”

Kristyn Wong-Tam and Matthew Cutler couldn’t believe what they had heard. The city councillor and The 519’s director of development and community engagement, along with another staffer from the city-funded community centre in the Church Wellesley Village, Barb Besharat, were walking through city hall’s cavernous rotunda when, they say, a woman wearing a Ford Nation T-shirt yelled the slur at them.

Earlier that day, outside city hall, Mayor Rob Ford had presided over the unveiling of the countdown clock to the Pan Am Games. But the true spectacle was the embattled mayor, who earlier that week had refused to stand to honour city staff’s work on WorldPride and was the only vote against a motion supporting a report on developing support for LGBT youth in homeless shelters.

Xtra arrived late that day. I was there to take his brother, Doug Ford, up on his challenge that Rob would help any member of the LGBT community, just as he would any constituent who called the mayor’s readily available cellphone number — we figured Xtra counts as a member of the LGBT community — but we had to catch up with the mayor as he crossed Nathan Phillips Square on his way back to his second-floor office.

The media scrums that follow the mayor are always large, but this one was unwieldy; not only were what felt like all Toronto’s reporters there, but the mayor’s coterie of staff and supporters were also present, plus some eager onlookers.

I can’t remember if the woman who Wong-Tam and Cutler say allegedly yelled the slur at them was there; I was focused on yelling a question at the mayor. Later, I would see a post from Cutler on Twitter identifying a woman with black, wiry hair, spectacles and a Ford Nation T-shirt as the one who’d voiced the slur. Her name is Iola Fortino; in the photo, she is outside and yelling at the assembled crowd.

I would see Fortino again: first, at a Ford Fest barbecue in Scarborough where she berated a group of LGBT activists, and later, at a mayoral debate at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s west end. Police escorted her out after she repeatedly interrupted the debate between candidates Olivia Chow, John Tory and Doug Ford.

Fortino is just one member of the odd circus that seems to follow the Fords. A select few have become infamous figures, appearing fleetingly in reporters’ Twitter feeds, much like the man who yelled at Chow during a debate — the same debate Fortino was escorted out of — that she should go back to China. National Post reporter Christie Blatchford, who first tweeted about the heckler, later described him as “unrepentant” in a story.

There are many more Ford supporters you wouldn’t ever notice unless they had tiny Ford Nation flags in their hands. People like Ines Anra, who told me after the debate that she understands why Doug Ford — who at the time would not answer clearly whether he would march in the Pride parade — wouldn’t march in the parade, because she wouldn’t either.

Wong-Tam believes, unwaveringly, that the Fords’ actions have allowed this kind of homophobia and racism to come bubbling to the surface. And as an openly gay woman and person of colour, she’s seen firsthand how people use her identities as basis for attacks.

She has been told repeatedly to go back to her “own country” — Wong-Tam has been in Canada since 1975. “This is my country,” she tells me, on the heels of receiving a letter in which the author calls Wong-Tam a faggot and wishes that she would die from AIDS while in public office. Though she has received other letters, Wong-Tam says the threat included in this one motivated her to report it to the police. In another incident, a volunteer canvassing for Wong-Tam had a confrontation with a man who allegedly directed hateful comments at the councillor.

Wong-Tam says the political climate wasn’t this charged during her first run at council. “But in 2014, it’s really hard to imagine how all of a sudden my race is an issue, and all of a sudden my sexual orientation is an issue,” she says. “This is not encouraging.” She is also concerned that her staff are often on the receiving end of hate.

It’s a throwback to a time when electing an openly gay councillor was more contentious. George Hislop, who ran for council in 1980, was hurt by accusations that “gay power politics” were taking over city hall. He was the first openly gay man to run in a municipal election in Canada; he did not win.

It wasn’t until Kyle Rae’s election to council in 1991 that an openly gay person made it to city hall. Chris Phibbs was Rae’s executive assistant from 1991 to 2003. She recalls that during Rae’s first year in office, he advocated publicly for Toronto’s fire department to hire more women, a move that proved unpopular because it criticized an institution that was a “bastion of white maleness,” as Phibbs puts it.

“We started getting horrible, horrible hate mail about what he was trying to do,” she says. “And, of course, instead of just criticizing him for trying to change the status quo, they attacked him for being gay.”

One letter received by Rae’s office in December 1992, and later published in Xtra, read, “Hello you faggot bastard would you like to have your nut’s cut off or better to fuck a red hot rod in your asshole that a good cure for AIDS [sic].”

The rest of the letter is incomprehensible, save a few drawings of swastikas and the author’s cheery salutation, wishing Rae a “merry Xmas.”

Police were called in to investigate — it was one of the times Rae’s staff thought a letter to his office warranted police involvement, according to Phibbs — but there was always abuse from the public. “I think we were the only office that had a hate mail file. And it was big, because Kyle was an outspoken politician,” she says. Rae declined to be interviewed for this story.

Speaking out about LGBT issues in the early 1990s could earn a politician hate mail, even if they themselves were not gay. Bob Gallagher, Olivia Chow’s executive assistant while she was on Metro Council, said that Chow frequently received hate mail and phone calls. “It was just a given that when you take on that issue you were going to get that,” he says.

But Gallagher also saw people’s attitudes change. He agreed to be Chow’s executive assistant only if she would advocate for spousal benefits for Metro employees. The cause was near and dear to Gallagher’s heart — his partner was HIV-positive.

Gallagher credits Chow’s advocacy work for helping get the measure through but also believes that his presence made an impact. “Having a person — in this case myself — who people could actually see as a human being and look in the whites of their eyes and realize they should not say, ‘Your partner of 10 years should not actually get medical care.’”

Toronto politicians began to come around on LGBT issues. Giorgio Mammoliti — who had said gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children because they were into “electric torture, whipping, water sports and scat” — voted in favour of same-sex spousal benefits in 1998, prompting Rae to cross the council floor and shake his hand. Norm Kelly, who once voted against same-sex spousal supports, voted in favour of supporting gay marriage in 2002 and has since become a vocal LGBT ally.

But as more rights for the LGBT community were won, less attention was paid to city hall. Save the odd update on Rae’s office, there was nary a city hall story to be found in Xtra from about 2000 to 2010, unless it was an election year. But all that time, Rae was still getting hateful calls and letters, though Phibbs notes they slowed in number the last few years she worked with him.

If municipal politics ever had any lustre, it was gone by the new millennium. In Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle’s book Crazy Town, she writes that she wasn’t sure if she was being punished when she was moved to the city hall beat from the crime beat in 2010 while she was working for the Toronto Star. “As I envisioned long days of boring committee meetings and agendas and debates about sidewalk widths and tree removal, I boxed up the contents of my office at Police Headquarters and began the grieving process,” she writes.

And for the LGBT community, at least, many of the key battles at the municipal level had already been won. By the time David Miller took office, things like walking in the Pride parade were considered part of the job — Mel Lastman, who had to be talked into doing it, ended up joining the parade with relish.

One of the few times city politics slipped into Xtra was in the June 28, 2001, issue, in a barely 400-word article about a little-known Etobicoke city councillor who, along with Doug Holyday, voted against funding a video about LGBT inclusion aimed at South Asian families. Consider it coincidence or providence, but the first Xtra story about Rob Ford falls on page 13 of the issue.

In the pages of a 2006 election issue, Rob would appear again, this time in an op-ed where writer Chris Jai Centeno begs Ward 2 residents not to reelect him, citing a laundry list of offences: he was a man who said if you’re not gay or an IV drug user, you won’t get AIDS; questioned a grant to the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line because he didn’t understand what transgenderism is; and compared racism to criticizing someone for wearing glasses or having braces. In the same article, Centeno lists a number of ways a candidate could unseat Rob, primarily by getting more people to vote by word of mouth and working on a campaign team. It’s exactly what unlikely mayoral candidate Rob Ford did to get elected in 2010.

His campaign was a harbinger of things to come. One moment, Ford was telling an HIV-positive man he was sorry if he had ever offended him (with a Toronto Star reporter present); the next he was proudly being endorsed by homophobic Pastor Wendell Brereton and announcing his support for “traditional marriage” — Doolittle writes in Crazy Town that both stunts were orchestrated by the Ford brothers alone and caught their campaign team off guard. These mixed messages around LGBT issues would characterize how the Fords addressed the queer community, both on the campaign trail and as they took office.

The impact of these actions affected George Smitherman, Rob’s closest rival in the election. According to a Toronto Sun report from Oct 24, 2010, two anonymous attack ads premiered in the fall that encouraged people to vote for Ford because he was in a heterosexual relationship.

There is no evidence that the Fords had anything to do with the ads, but by then, the lines were clear: Rob supported “traditional marriage,” while Smitherman campaigned with his husband in tow. He was an easy target for anyone with homophobic inclinations.

Within city hall, there is no indication that the Fords have done anything that could be considered homophobic to staff or politicians. But there are many things both brothers have said that have raised eyebrows, whether they were racist, homophobic or sexist, as well as the actions of their followers. “I am not so naive to think discrimination and bigoted behaviour is not felt,” Wong-Tam told me not long after Fortino allegedly called her a faggot.

Chris Haskim, Sarah Doucette’s executive assistant, says city hall is one of the most accepting, progressive places he has ever worked as an openly gay man. We’re sitting in the councillor’s office in late July. Her windows open up on an impressive view of Nathan Phillips Square — people walking by can also see directly in, so they all see the Pride flag Doucette displays in the window.

It was a Pride flag that brought Doucette into the limelight this year. On Feb 7, 2014, when council decided to raise a rainbow flag outside city hall to show solidarity with LGBT athletes and Russians during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Rob declared his intention to take down the flag because, according to reports, the Games were about the Olympics, not “sexual preference.”

Shortly after, Doucette went on live TV and said that if Ford removed the flag, she would put it back up, according to Haskim. “[It] was a great moment for me, but, as expected, 30 seconds later Ford Nation starts calling,” he says. “I’ve never heard such vile things in my life.” It was the first time he had experienced that kind of targeted homophobia at his workplace, and it was the only time anyone has ever called him a fag.

Ford Nation has been a pesky nuisance for councillors at best. At its worst, it can be downright threatening. In addition to the letters received by Wong-Tam over the last few months, a city hall source told me that their councillor had received a letter with similar handwriting around the same time Wong-Tam received hers, also laced with a generous helping of obscenities and slurs.

Even those who have not been direct recipients of hatred feel the impact when the Fords are in the news for their behaviour. “When the news comes up and it happens, it’s hard not to have that resound with you personally,” says Sarah Buchanan, a constituency assistant in Janet Davis’s office, who is openly gay. “It’s hard not to watch statements and feel that little twinge.”

When Rob refused to stand to honour the work done organizing WorldPride, many decried the action as a snub to city staff. But Chris Brillinger, executive director of social development, finance and administration at the City of Toronto, who organized the recognition, says the big story to him is still the work city staff and their partners did.

He notes that the Toronto Public Service has an understanding of queer issues and a commitment to improving queer staff members’ experience. “I think queer staff, like any other demo of city staff, want to see a mayor or political leadership who reflect them, represent them, understand them,” he says. “That’s a desirable thing to see happen that at the end of the day is up to the voters.”

Cutler is also a City of Toronto staff member and was working the day he was called a faggot in the city hall rotunda. “For us as public servants to have that experience as well was incredibly problematic because it is our workplace — we were at the office,” he says.

For all the things they do, Rob and Doug Ford both insist they are not homophobic. Rob attended a PFLAG event in 2012 and the Pride Week flag-raising in 2013. While Rob’s voting record is generally negative for any kind of city spending, Doug voted for the 2011 AIDS Prevention Community Investment Program allocations recommendations, and for releasing Section 45 funds to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (Rob voted against the first motion and was absent for the second)*. Rob has never attended Pride, and won’t say if he ever will, but Doug has recently had a change of heart in this regard, telling the Sun’s editorial board definitively that he would go.

At a recent Ward 27 debate, Wong-Tam said that she is able to work with the senior Ford. In our most recent interview, she said Doug had called her to apologize for what she had been going through on the campaign trail. However, she says, he stopped short of taking up her offer to release a joint unity statement saying they would not tolerate bigotry, homophobia, sexism or racism — she says he said he would have to check with his campaign team. But on Sept 24, Doug condemned any homophobic or racist comments from his supporters, according to a report in the National Post.

The Fords are not homophobic crusaders in the vein of American politicians Michele Bachmann or Lyndon LaRouche. What is dangerous is their absence of a clear position. Summed up by Davis, who marches in the Pride parade with her openly gay son, the Fords have created an atmosphere that allows hatred to ferment. “[Rob] has created the space; he has given permission; he has allowed for those views to become more explicit and for people to express them openly,” she adds.

And they understand this. In Crazy Town, Doolittle suggests that some of the offensive and homophobic things Rob has said were not mistakes, but an attempt to galvanize his socially conservative base. “He appeared to be playing for the camera, cultivating a persona, even if he wasn’t consciously thinking about it.”

What is most telling is how Ford supporters describe the brothers. At the debate at York Collegiate, people tell me that Doug is a good businessman, that he takes care of the community, that he’s smart and comes from a good family. “He’s determined and courageous and always tries to do what is right,” says Bibi, declining to give her last name.

But most interesting are the views of Fortino.

“[Rob] has got some morals and, what, he has to leave them behind? He’s not politically correct; he’s not going to stamp on God to get his votes — and that’s what we love about him,” she says after her ejection from the mayoral debate. Fortino says she was not politically engaged until Rob was elected mayor, though a source says she is well known to trustees of the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Her primary issue, she says, is that a gay agenda is taking over the schools.

We’re at the back in the high school auditorium where the debate took place, and as we talk, the volume of her voice gets louder and louder until some of the leftover media are peering at us and, I assume, wondering what the hell is going on. “Why don’t we step outside?” I ask.

Five minutes later, on the steps of the high school, I prod her about the accusations against her, asking if she has ever called any city councillor a faggot. She denies it initially but adds a caveat. “If I did, it was out of anger, because they were harassing me,” she says, adding that she was angry at one councillor who “harassed” Rob for sitting down during the WorldPride recognition at city hall. I ask if she is referring to Wong-Tam. She is. “She was harassing him.” With each question her voice raises; Fortino is angry. But when I ask her directly — “Did you call Kristyn Wong-Tam a faggot?” — she denies it. “No, I wouldn’t say that to her.”

In the absence of affirmation or condemnation, the Fords have created an environment where they can be anything their supporters need them to be, whether it’s just a great pair of guys who save people money or defenders of the religious right. As Davis says, it gives people who may have been ignored or pushed to the fringes a platform, neatly organized under one brand — Ford Nation.

Despite the tendency to view members of Ford Nation as a sideshow to the election, their actions are serious for the people who face discrimination because of them. It’s a point made abundantly clear when Olivia Chow is faced with an audience question at a debate that begins by pointing out that she immigrated to Canada. She must loudly reaffirm that she is Canadian — as if it were even up for debate.

Then there is the “what if” scenario. Wong-Tam tells me it is one thing to yell a slur, but what if someone becomes brave enough to assault somebody? This was before she received the second hate letter or learned one of her volunteers was threatened.

I have made numerous requests to interview both the Fords. They have gone mostly ignored, except for one in-person attempt with Rob’s media relations aide at the time, Amin Massoudi, who told me, “The man has a very busy schedule.” I have no answers from either of them that make clear why they can’t fully commit to supporting LGBT rights or being homophobes.

So, what can we do about Ford Nation?

When I spoke to Cutler over the phone, months after his alleged encounter with Fortino, I asked what he did when he heard her words.

“I decided to go over and engage with her,” he said. “I said, ‘Excuse me, would you mind explaining what you just said to us? I think I heard you use homophobic language.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but all that matters is you stop harassing the mayor.’” According to Cutler, she stormed off immediately after.

It may not have gone the way he wanted it to, but his approach reflects one I have heard repeatedly since Torontonians have started to have a more open discussion about the impact discrimination has had on the mayoral campaign. You have to name it — homophobia or sexism or racism — or it will never stop.