Above Thomson Memorial Park on July 25, the sun hung low in the sky on a warmer day than Toronto has seen during this unseasonably cool summer. Rob Ford and his family couldn’t have asked for a better day to host the semi-regular barbecue they call Ford Fest — a celebration of all things Rob and family — where, they say, everyone is welcome.
But a small group of LGBT activists who attended soon felt anything but welcome. Warily regarded when they first arrived, wearing their rainbow leis and pink feather boas, the situation escalated as several vocal Ford supporters surrounded them and yelled at them to go home.
At its most tense moment, about 30 people surrounded the small group and taunted its members. One man, stone-faced and tall, approached the group and began to debate with them — then ripped a sign out of a protester’s hands and tore it apart to cheers from the crowd. Another protester, later identified as a straight ally and Ford opponent, was allegedly grabbed by the throat.
Since then, the Fords have apologized — in a way. Rob Ford told CP24 that he didn’t see the events but that he apologizes and “we have to move on.” Doug told reporters the incident was “very unfortunate” but added a caveat in the form of an analogy: “You can’t show up to a Yankees game with a Red Sox hat on . . . enticing a fight,” he reportedly said.
Both Fords have repeatedly denied they are homophobes. But their actions — their refusal to attend Pride, Rob’s attempt to take down the Pride flag hung to support gay athletes during the Sochi Olympics and, more recently, his sole vote against a report on LGBT youth shelters — give the strong impression that the brothers are at the very least uncomfortable with the segment of their LGBT constituency that is loud and proud.
Whether the Fords are homophobes or not, their actions and words have created a space where bigots feel comfortable spreading their views.
Not everyone who attends Ford Fest or supports the Fords is homophobic. The most vocal anti-gay group was only a small percentage of the thousands of people at Thomson Memorial Park that night.
But as I observed the LGBT protesters at Ford Fest, I was genuinely surprised how many people whispered insults at them — the quiet bigots who were not captured by TV cameras. And as the situation escalated, the louder people displayed the kind of animosity that is usually reserved for the most heated political protests.
About a week after Ford Fest, Poe Liberado, one of the organizers of the protest, told me that the group went to Ford Fest specifically with the intent to provoke responses, but it never occurred to them that those responses would be as aggressive as the ones they encountered. “Even though [the protest] was called Queeruption, I didn’t actually think we would disrupt much,” she says, adding that they had hoped to start a conversation about their actions.
Though the protesters stood their ground, Liberado says it was difficult to listen to some of the things said to them. “For me, someone else was saying how my parents must be so disappointed in me, to have a gay child,” she says.
It takes a certain shamelessness to continue to claim after these events that everyone is welcome, as Doug claims. But in a way he is telling the truth — just his version of it. Because as his baseball analogy indicates, you are welcome at Ford Fest, or in the Fords’ circle, as long as you are on Team Ford.