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Egale skips bad laws to focus on single issue

Activism is all about marriage

Try, try again. That could be the motto for successful gay activists. And it’s one likely to be adopted by those unhappy about a controversial December decision by Egale Canada.

The board of Canada’s national gay lobby group may try a second time to reach agreement on a proposed federal law on child porn and sexual exploitation. A law that critics say will criminalize consensual gay sex and result in the arrest of artists.

Despite opposition to the legislation from its expert legal committee, the Egale board was unable to reach consensus at its December teleconference meeting. Gay and lesbian activists criticized the board’s stand in a news report published in the Feb 10 issue of Capital Xtra. Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale, says he expects the issue will be revisited in March following a turnover in board members.

Egale’s legal issues committee opposes parts of Bill C-2, the first legislation introduced by the federal Liberal minority government. The bill followed a vitriolic election campaign in which Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper suggested Prime Minister Paul Martin favoured child pornography.

The aim of Bill C-2, says Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, is to “protect the most vulnerable amongst us.” But although they admire the aim of the bill, arts and civil libertarian groups say it has several deep flaws that could result in unfair criminal charges being brought against gays and artists.

Consensual gay sex involving youths under 18 could be made illegal if a court decides the youth is in a vaguely-defined “exploitative relationship” with someone over 18, say opponents including the BC Civil Liberties Association. As well, works of art that address themes such as coming of age and juvenile sexuality could be judged to be child pornography; and museums, libraries, schools and galleries housing those works could be charged with distributing child pornography, adds the Canadian Conference Of The Arts. Bill C-2 would remove the defense of artistic merit, saying that any work would have to serve a “legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice or to science, medicine, education or art.”

Marchildon stands by his decision to send the issue to the board for debate. But the process contrasts with that used by Egale for Bill C-20, a predecessor to Bill C-2. In 2003, the legal issues committee criticized the bill as discriminating against queer youth and effectively criminalizing consensual sex. The committee publicly opposed the bill without first getting approval from the board of directors. And they made a presentation to the justice committee of Parliament.

Bill C-20 became Bill C-12 and then died on the order paper when the 2004 election was called.

This time around, Marchildon tried to educate the board of directors about the issue prior to its meeting.

But the discussion quickly polarized. Some board members, particularly those with children, were adamant that any bill that aimed to protect children from exploitation be supported regardless of whether it is badly worded and has a potential impact on the gay community, recalls Stephen Lock, a board member from Calgary.

That’s also the recollection of Gemma Hickey, vice president of Egale and a board member from Newfoundland. Parents on the board in particular did not want to oppose the bill, Hickey says. And the bill is “not really a LGBT issue,” she claims. “We wanted to focus our time on equal marriage.”

But if parents sitting on the board of an organization fighting for gay and lesbian equality are putting their concerns as parents ahead of the equality and freedom of queers, should they not disqualify themselves from the debate?

“I certainly can’t answer that because I am not a parent,” says Hickey. “You should ask the parents on the board.”

Capital Xtra tried repeatedly to contact Egale board members who are parents so that they could explain their position to Canada’s gays and lesbians. They did not return those calls. Lisa Lachance, a married lesbian mother who represented the Ottawa area at the December meeting, said she would call but failed to do so.

If business people sat on the board and prevented the organization from opposing a bill that allowed gay people to be fired from their jobs, would that not be a conflict of interest, Marchildon was asked.

He doesn’t think parents on the board would see any conflict of interest in their decision to back off from fighting Bill C-2. “They would see themselves as legitimately voicing concerns that are felt by a wide swath in our communities, speaking up for a constituency.”

Lock recalls some board members wanted to get far away from anything that could connect gays and lesbians with paedophilia and child porn.

“There was a concern by a couple of members that if Egale was seen to be supporting artistic merit and didn’t come down really, really hard on exploitation of children, we’re reinforcing that paedophile thing,” says Lock.

He took a position in line with the legal committee, opposing parts of the bill. While recognizing the importance of protecting children from exploitation, he says the bill goes too far.

Marchildon recounts one part of the board discussion. Someone had just noted that artists and civil libertarians were opposing Bill C-2, he says. The person proposed that, given that the gay movement – and Egale – aims to win civil liberties, it only makes sense to also oppose the legislation.

That quickly drew comment from another participant who claimed Egale is not fighting for civil liberties, but instead for social justice.

It was clear that no consensus could be reached, says Marchildon, who believes Egale has to be both a civil liberties organization and a social justice organization.

Though Egale’s rules allow for a vote when consensus is impossible, it would require a two-thirds vote for a recommendation to become policy. Marchildon doubts it could have passed. The board abandoned the discussion rather than defeat the motion.

But, says Marchildon, the 2003 presentation opposing Bill C-20 still applies. It focusses on repealing Section 159 of the Criminal Code to ensure that youth between 14 and 18 have the freedom to participate in anal sex – the age of consent for anal sex is now 18 in the Criminal Code – and to decriminalize consensual anal sex involving more than two people. (Marchildon notes that the position paper is missing from Egale’s website.)

But active work against Bill C-2 has stopped “for the time being,” says Marchildon. “We are not focussing our energies on mounting a challenge to this.”

In fact, Egale is focussing its energies almost exclusively on fighting for same-sex marriage, he notes. That bill is before Parliament.

As is Bill C-2, which has moved to committee stage and is facing calls from Conservative Party MPs to further toughen it, including raising the age of consent to 16 or even 18 – virtually outlawing sex for youth.

Egale has chosen where to focus its efforts for now. To fight Bill C-2 “requires an investment in time and energy we just don’t have available because we’re working on other issues,” says Marchildon. Besides, “In promoting a sex-positive agenda, our eggs are in the basket of [demanding the abolition of] the bawdyhouse laws” which are used against patrons of gay bathhouses.

But, he adds on a more optimistic note, “combatting sexual oppression is on the agenda” for Egale’s March board retreat. “The board is changing and continuing to evolve as various members come and go.”