2 min

Dangerous silence

From the mayor to the Commonwealth

I’ve been struck by the silence that increasingly pervades public life. What makes this brand of silence so insidious is the message it conveys: that we all either approve of the status quo, are awaiting that elusive right time and right place to act, don’t care to be involved or don’t care, period.

Otherwise, what’s the explanation for what happened — or rather, what didn’t happen — on that packed 41 bus Halloween night when about 10 men bombarded Keith Guidi with homophobic slurs, and one even threatened him with a knife?

Guidi himself couldn’t fathom the bus full of silence that greeted his repeated calls to the driver for help. No one, said an incredulous Guidi, came to his assistance. Not even the driver, who could have called dispatch or the police as Guidi repeatedly implored him to do.

And what to make of the silence of the transit police Guidi eventually managed to raise through the Joyce Station helpline? Why didn’t they ask him about the nature of the derogatory comments he reported?

For that matter, why is Mayor Gregor Robertson erring on the side of silence as the number of reported gaybashings in Vancouver reaches double figures in the last 12 months.

“In this year, there haven’t been a flood of acute issues on queer rights in the city for us to work through,” the mayor told me. Exactly what qualifies as “acute”?

And then there’s the silence at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held over the weekend in Trinidad, my home country. Specifically about one of its member countries’ proposed legislation that would make life more of a living hell for queers and those who even remotely know of their existence.

Not content to already have legislation banning gay sex under penalty of life in prison, Ugandan MP David Bahati is piloting his own private member’s bill that creates the bizarre category of “aggravated homosexuality” and punishes those guilty of it with death for “repeat offenders” and people who are HIV-positive. 

The bill also criminalizes touching anyone in a gay way, funding or sponsoring gay organizations, broadcasting, publishing or marketing gay material and failing to report a gay person’s existence within Uganda’s borders within 24 hours of learning such a person exists.

The reaction of Trinidadian media? Instead of unequivocally denouncing the absurdly hate-filled legislation and demanding that Commonwealth heads take Uganda’s leader to task in an international forum for his increasingly vocal support of the bill, the media seemingly took a collective vow of silence.

One newspaper rolled out a clichéd editorial welcoming foreign dignitaries and rhapsodizing about Commonwealth members’ shared heritage and “justifiably proud” history of championing democratic ideals.

Not a syllable about the disgrace of having Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the outgoing Commonwealth chair, calling for equity among member nations even as he gives a pass-go to a bill that his ethics and integrity minister reportedly welcomes “with joy.”

The same newspaper carried a report about the bill and reaction to it, but framed the issue as a “row between Uganda and liberal Commonwealth nations such as Canada.”

Really? A row?

And it’s “liberal” to denounce a government for legislating violence against its own people?

Another paper’s Nov 26 editorial talked in useless generalities about the need for democracy, conceded that climate change and the global recession will dominate conference talks and ended with an utterly forgettable expression of hope that the issue of democracy will be “included” in the meeting’s final report that no one is likely to read.

Yet a third daily publication paraphrased Museveni’s throwaway observation that “you cannot have a Commonwealth where the wealth is not common.”

Where are the shoe-throwing media when you need them?

Where are the probing, investigative questions of government leaders about Uganda’s sudden need to turn the screws of state power on queers?

Time to turn up the spotlight and the volume, people. Way up. Those who desperately need you to speak up can’t hear you through your deafening silence.