“Mr Leatherhead,” was the screaming headline on the Nov 4 cover of the Toronto Sun, accompanied by a doctored photo of Kyle Rae decked out in leather gear. Ostensibly an exposé of the so-called gravy train at city hall, the Sun highlighted the outgoing gay councillor’s $421 expense claim to cover a park permit for a leather charity fundraiser — which went right back into city coffers.
Was the Sun’s coverage really about wasteful spending?
“No, it’s about whipping up hate against the queer community, pure and simple,” according to Sky Gilbert, co-founder of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which had its own city funding attacked by the Toronto Sun in the 1990s. “It is one agenda, the same agenda: homophobia and bigotry directed towards gays and lesbians and their sexual orientation.”
“The Sun has always been as much an advocate and agitator as a newspaper,” says Tom Warner, who cofounded many of the city’s first gay activist groups. “It has been particularly notorious for unapologetically providing a forum for and attempting to confer credibility on the most extreme and scare-mongering expressions of homophobia.”
The Toronto Sun has always had a turbulent relationship with Toronto’s gay and trans communities. Going back to its beginnings in the 1970s, the paper has been at the forefront of most attacks on the city’s gay and trans organizations, politicians and community activities.
Xtra’s calls to Sun editor James Wallace were not returned by press time.
Here are some highlights from the historical record:
In an article headlined “The Limp Wrist Lobby,” Sun columnist Claire Hoy accuses the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO) of tiptoeing into Queen’s Park to “spread its particular brand of poison” by lobbying the Liberal caucus to support an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code that would include sexual orientation. “Hoy and the Sun — through its editorials and other columnists — waged a nasty and unrelenting campaign,” Warner explains. “There were many other equally vile pieces published in the paper that disparaged gays and lesbians and seemed intended to stir up homophobia and bigotry.”
Warner was one of the activists who co-founded CGRO in 1975, with the initial objective of extending human rights legislation to include gays and lesbians.
Toronto police raid the offices of Pink Triangle Press (PTP). Obscenity charges are laid against the organization’s directors for publishing an article in The Body Politic by Gerald Hannon. While civil libertarians send messages of support, the Sun runs an editorial describing The Body Politic as “a crummy, dirty publication without a redeeming feature.”
PTP would ultimately prevail, going on to publish Xtra. Ken Popert, who is executive director of PTP today, was among those arrested.
“It was Claire Hoy who led the charge,” he recalls. “He prepared the groundwork, because it was him who first raised the alarm about Gerald’s article. The Sun was politically creative. It was not an unconscious thing at all; I think they knew exactly what they were doing.”
A Metro Toronto police sergeant equates homosexuality with murder and rape in an article published in the police association’s magazine. The Sun leaps to the officer’s defence; Hoy writes that he is “generally perceptive in his conclusions.”
In Toronto’s municipal election, one of the most controversial issues is Mayor John Sewell’s support for the gay community. The day before the election, the Sun publishes a two-page ad attacking the gay community and Sewell’s support for gay rights.
Following massive police raids on Toronto bathhouses, the Sun publishes the names and addresses of some of the men charged. Sun editor Peter Worthington tells the CBC, “I think a person’s sexual orientation or preferences should remain in the closet.” Except for some — he pledges to publish the identities of any men found in future bathhouse raids.
The transcript from a CBC Radio broadcast on February 15, 1981 illustrates the mood of the gay community at a public meeting held in response to the bath raids: “Here at the homosexual mass meeting, a motion has just come from the floor to eject any correspondent of the Toronto Sun who may be present. The reaction is overwhelming. The members of the gay community are united in their hatred and fear of the Toronto Sun.”
Relying on police information that even its own news reports acknowledge could be spurious, the Sun runs a series of sensational articles suggesting that Laura Rowe, a lesbian appointed to the police commission by the Ontario NDP government, is linked to prostitution and an incident of alleged child abuse. An OPP investigation will later find that Rowe was not involved, but not before she is subjected to a lengthy smear campaign.
“This was obviously an irresistible story for the rabidly pro-police and anti-gay Sun,” says Warner, who was himself the first openly gay appointee to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “It could use the police allegations against Rowe, even if they might be highly suspect, to bash the hated NDP and to link an out-of-the closet lesbian they had appointed with criminality.”
Sun columnist Christina Blizzard launches a campaign against City of Toronto funding for Inside Out and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, two of the 230 cultural groups funded by the city. In response, city council cuts funding for both, with funding for Buddies later restored thanks to a campaign led by the city’s artists.
Sky Gilbert, cofounder of Buddies, is on the receiving end of the campaign. “Christina Blizzard led a campaign through countless articles — it must have been at least five or six, but it just seemed to go on forever. In article after article, Blizzard spread rumours that our primary focus was running orgies and operating a sex club.”
The Ontario Legislature debates Bill 167, which would extend equal spousal protections to same-sex couples. Worthington writes an opinion piece called “The Squalor of Gay Life.”
Former attorney general Marion Boyd, who initiated the bill, believes the Sun had a role to play in the bill’s failure. “If you look at the ‘dirty dozen,’ the NDP members whose votes scuttled Bill 167, they were certainly affected by constituents who only read tabloids, like the Sun, and made the decision that ‘If the Sun says so, that must be the way my constituents feel.’”
After the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council rules that American talk radio host Laura Schlessinger violated the standards of the industry regulator, Worthington defends her in an article that argues homosexuality is “abnormal.” He compares her to another “voice of morality”: 1970s anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant.
In arguing against same-sex marriage rights, Worthington writes that “a homosexual… has no role in perpetuating the species.”
The cover of the Toronto Sun during the municipal election campaign asks if mayoral candidate George Smitherman is “Too Gay?”