News
3 min

Hate crime laws don’t change minds

Who knows what Margaret Somerville is thinking?

CONDEMNING OUR CRITICS. Ryersonites protested Margaret Somerville's honorary doctorate, but it would go further toward changing her mind to show her how great queer life can be. Credit: Joshua Meles

Two recent incidents where there have been accusations of homophobia graphically illustrate the problem with contemporary approaches in the gay and lesbian movement.

James Loney, a gay member of the Christian Peacemaker team — recently freed after being held hostage in Iraq — accused the Knights Of Columbus (KOC) of homophobia for cancelling his session at a Catholic youth camp. Loney says the KOC feared his homosexuality would create a bad example for young people. The Knights Of Columbus denied homophobia was involved, claiming they closed the camp in order to review the camp’s mission and administration. “We resent the allegation,” the KOC stated in a press release.

Meanwhile, world famous McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville was presented with an honorary doctorate by Ryerson University. Her opposition to same-sex marriage caused some academics to turn their backs on her during the June ceremony. Somerville, like the KOC, has denied she is homophobic, while Ryerson president Sheldon Levy has defended Somerville’s honour citing principles of academic freedom.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Knights, Somerville and Ryerson University are all homophobic. The KOC is a Roman Catholic organization, answerable to the Pope who himself has firmly labelled homosexual acts sinful.

Somerville claims that her objection to gay marriage is based on her concern as an ethicist that the children of queer couples will inevitably find it difficult to trace the identities of their biological parents. This argument simply makes no logical sense. Heterosexuals procreate daily on impulse and produce unwanted children who have trouble tracing their biological parents. Queers, in contrast, usually put extensive planning into their parenting.

In honouring Somerville, Ryerson maintains what I see as a history of homophobia by this so-called university. Somerville, a heterosexual who dislikes gay marriage, has had her freedom of speech protected, whereas Gerald Hannon, a homosexual who works as a prostitute and who spoke out in favour of promiscuity and the right of young people to make their own sexual decisions, was dismissed from his position at Ryerson in 1996 for his line of work and for airing his controversial views. Academic freedom? Oh yes — but only when it suits Ryerson.

What I find fascinating about all this is the hypocrisy, the artful dissembling. These days, when a person or an institution is accused of homophobia all they must do is formally deny the accusation and all is forgiven. If they do not deny it, they risk more than just political incorrectness because they may conceivably be accused of hate speech.

In fact, the leaders of the gay rights movement now believe that prejudice can be legislated. Organizations like Egale Canada seem to have boundless faith in the power of law — the rights of gay, lesbian and trans people, like the right to marry and to be protected from hate crimes. The idea is that once our civil liberties have been won, we will be universally loved and accepted.

But you can’t legislate intention. Though the Canadian government has made homophobic hate speech illegal (along with speech that incites hate based on colour, race, ethnic origin and religion), that will not make it go away any day soon. As long as we persist in the naive view that outlawing homophobia will force people to love queers, homophobes will be able to run legal and political rings around us and keep their hatred even safer. Accused of homophobia? Just deny it, that’s all. No one can get into your brain and find out what you’re actually thinking. If a court doesn’t prove you guilty of hate crimes, then you are innocent.

Hate speech laws encourage the ridiculous notion that you can use the law to pressure people into changing their most deeply held prejudices. They also threaten freedom of speech and freedom of thought. So what should we do?

I say repeal hate laws and recognize gay marriage for what it is — a necessary right like many others, but not the holy grail.

Gay liberation (remember that word?) should be focussed on pressuring fundamentalists, right-wingers and every conservative mom and pop, to think about their own prejudices. The only way to do that is the way the old gay liberationists did it — by flaunting our gender play (male femininity and female masculinity) in their faces, proudly reminding them of the sexual acts which we enjoy (and they hate) and teaching everyone the value of alternative relationships — polyamory, promiscuity and open relationships.

If you’re a gay guy, looking granny in the eye and telling her you like to wear dresses may do more to fight homophobia than demanding an apology from the Knights Of Columbus, Margaret Somerville or Ryerson University. If you’re a dyke, having a frank discussion of your polyamorous relationship with some straight friends will do more to open minds than a marriage ceremony. Just flaunt it!

Be honest about what makes you different from other people. Don’t rely on legislation to do the trick. It won’t work. I guarantee it.