Let us now speak ill of the dead.
As Rob Ford lies in repose at city hall and Ford Nation lines up to pay homage to their ever-embattled champion; as politicians — allies, enemies and enablers alike — damn him with faint praise; as journalists and pundits sift through the wreckage of his mayoralty, assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Rob; as pictures of his worship, chin up and gazing into the distance, grace the covers of our newspapers; and as the price of Ford bobbleheads climb steadily higher, let us remember that, Rob Ford, the 64th mayor of Toronto, was above all else a homophobe.
This is not to say that Robert Bruce Ford the man was full of hate. We can never know what was in his heart. But as a city councillor and a campaigner and a mayor, hatred was a tool he used to great effect.
In his public life and his private pronouncements, Ford had an inexhaustible number of ways of demonstrating his discomfort and disdain for the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
“It’s not just that he doesn’t get us,” Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam told Daily Xtra in 2014. “He actually hates us.”
With his words, his actions and his calculated inactions, Ford ensured at every turn that Torontonians knew exactly where he stood with regards to LGBT people.
As Jeet Heer noted in the New Republic, homophobia was the glue that kept Ford’s coalition intact. He united disparate and often disenfranchised communities by sending the message that he too was appalled by those freaks at Church and Wellesley.
On the council floor, he made clear his belief that AIDS was a disease exclusively of drug users and gay men, and therefore deserving of no public money. He refused to attend the Pride parade and instead opined the lack of a “heterosexual parade” (which he later essentially created with Ford Fest). He endorsed homophobic politicians, raged against the rainbow flag and was the lone vote against a proposal to assist LGBT homeless youth.
Even in his choice of political adversaries, Ford always found a way to have sexual orientation central to the discussion. His 2010 mayoral campaign was lifted when he went after Kyle Rae for spending $12,000 of city money on a retirement party.
The homophobic subtext of his race against George Smitherman became explicit when Tamil-language ads urged people to vote for Ford because he was married to a woman (Ford’s campaign denied involvement with the ads and publicly condemned them).
Wong-Tam, one of his staunchest rivals on council, was the subject of homophobic threats from Ford supporters and was once called a “fucking faggot” by one at city hall. He railed against Kathleen Wynne’s sex education plan, arguing that young children shouldn’t be taught “what anal sex is or what a blow job is.”
It was a shocking regression for a city where previous mayors had actually taken stands for the LGBT community. In the 1970s, Mayor John Sewell defended gay rights at a time when few civic politicians would. Mayor Barbara Hall proudly marched in the Pride parade, and even Mel Lastman eventually got on board.
None of this means that Ford deserved to die. None of this minimizes the suffering he endured in the last years of his life. But it’s impossible to understand and assess Ford’s mayoralty without acknowledging the lasting damage the man did to one of the city’s most marginalized communities.
Look no further than the homophobia-tinged protests against the provincial sex education platform to see the political space that Ford opened up.
Rob Ford brought homophobia back into the public square. That’s a legacy that will carry on despite his death.