6 min

Jack Layton speaks

On gay rights, bathhouse raids and toppling the Liberals

Credit: Xtra West Files

With the election fast approaching, Xtra West received a call Jan 11 from one of the four major parties. The party in question was the NDP. The offer: a 15-minute interview with its leader, Jack Layton.

Obviously Xtra West accepted.

Layton called promptly the next morning from his hotel overlooking the Nanaimo harbour, the latest stop on his campaign tour, and thanked the paper for the opportunity to directly address the gay community.

This is the interview that followed.

Xtra West: Why should queers vote for you and the NDP this election? What will you do for us?

Jack Layton: We are the party that has consistently, for decades, worked on behalf of the gay community, the lesbian community, and increasingly in recent years the trans community, around equality, respect and justice, the building of the communities across the country.

We have also demonstrated in the last [same-sex marriage] vote that we stand by what we believe, to the point of taking steps when a member of our caucus chose not to support equality. The first step taken was a complete demotion within the caucus. And then at the local level another candidate was chosen to run, even though Bev Desjarlais was an incumbent.

So I think that our record speaks strongly to the commitment that we have on the issues.

We have the ongoing work of Bill Siksay on gender identity with his legislation that’s before the House. We have the ongoing work of Libby Davies dealing with sex trade workers.

We have a commitment to go after the bigots. I have been regularly raising the issue of the 29 members of the Liberal team that are running for re-election who voted against equality, including Tom Wappel. We are running very hard to defeat Tom Wappel.

And we constantly challenge Mr Martin on the hypocrisy of his attempting to cloak himself and Liberals running for his party in the Charter and equality. A significant number of his team have specifically said that they will oppose equality. That, to me, does not represent the kind of leadership that the community needs.

I go back to the great leaders in the community for my inspiration. George Hislop was the first gay activist that I ever had a chance to sit down with in the mid-’70s to talk about the issues facing the community. And I had the privilege of being at his bedside about three hours before he passed away and it was a very special moment for me and one I’ll never forget.

XW: How do you think your record of supporting the gay and lesbian community compares to that of the Liberals?

JL: I think it’s incomparable. Our record is consistent, solid. It’s not reactive, it’s proactive and has been for 25 years.

XW: What do you mean it’s proactive not reactive?

JL: We don’t wait for an issue to arise and then act on it as Mr Martin has done with same-sex marriage. Remember when the big debate was going on about the bill, he was remarkably silent, talked about his conflicted views. We, on the other hand, were out there strongly in a very direct and forthcoming way.

The first time we had to, Olivia [Chow] and I, speak out on the issue of same-sex marriage was at our own wedding in 1988, where we made sure that our friend spoke on our behalf that we dreamed of the day when our gay and lesbian couple friends could celebrate their love for one another in front of all their friends through marriage like we were able to do. I must admit, in 1988, I never imagined that I would have the actual privilege of standing up and voting to make that the law of the land. It was one of the high points of the past 18 months.

I guess my first real engagement with the community was during the attacks that were going on-the wrongful activities of police officers vis-à-vis the gay community in the late ’70s. We formed an organization to tackle it, to raise awareness with the police commission. And then, of course, the bath raids hit and I was very active on that issue.

XW: So you’ve been personally involved, as a straight man, in supporting the gay community?

JL: Oh yes, since about 1976.

XW: Why?

JL: Because I believe fundamentally in the equality that has to be available to absolutely everyone in Canada. Sexual orientation has, for far too long, been a basis for discrimination, bigotry, persecution and inequality.

I have to tell you, my commitment was deep on this from the beginning, from those first bath raids. There were a number of men who committed suicide as a result of that terrible attack on the community, where a little over 300 men were scooped up, their names were made public-it was an attack.

Immediately following that, I ended up as the chair of the board of health just as what at the time was called the gay men’s health crisis began to hit. I just watched my friends and activists collapsing with this disease. I was giving eulogies so frequently it was just tearing my heart out.

And here we had calls at the time for closing the bathhouses and talking about abstinence-and absolutely not handing out condoms. So we went on a very active campaign specifically to hand out condoms and to make sure that public education was going on in the bathhouses.

XW: But getting back to today, many would say that queers were actually doing all right under the Liberal minority government. We did get same-sex marriage. Why topple it?

JL: Well, first because the Liberals were unwilling to take action on key issues that needed to be acted upon.

XW: Such as?

JL: Protecting our public health care system from the growth of privatisation. We offered, in fact our party worked harder than any other party to try to continue to give positive results.

Let’s remember, the gay marriage bill never would have passed if the NDP had not found a way to change the federal budget and support it. We said the budget had to go all the way through to royal assent, we will vote against non-confidence motions all the way until royal assent. And that provided enough time for the same-sex marriage bill to be adopted.

And I was thrilled about that because that was a parallel consequence of our actions to try to keep getting the results. The Liberals were prepared to bring in a budget, have it be defeated and that would have, of course, resulted in the loss of that bill.

XW: But now we’re facing a Conservative minority. What impact can the NDP have there?

JL: Well, we could stop all kinds of-if that happens. We’re trying very hard for it not to happen, by encouraging people across the country to vote New Democrat to defeat the Conservatives. I’m talking to you from Nanaimo and the queer community here knows that the way to defeat Conservatives on the island is to vote NDP.

XW: Not Liberal?

JL: Not Liberal, absolutely not! They run third. This is where people need to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s the NDP that can defeat Conservatives.

And furthermore, let’s remember what the Liberals will do. There are 29 Liberals, from Tom Wappel right on through, who are running for re-election who will vote with Mr Harper on same-sex equality issues.

For those who are looking for a party that is steadfast and will really stand up for them, not take two sides at the same time, which is what the Liberals are doing, they need to support the New Democrats.

XW: But can the New Democrats have an impact under a Conservative minority?

JL: We’ve already proven it. Because the Liberals in a minority context were able to be stopped from doing things they wanted to do, like get us into missile defence, and they were able to be forced to do things that they should have done, like pass the same-sex equality bill. Because of the New Democrats in a minority House.

XW: But will the Conservatives listen to you?

JL: Well, the Liberals didn’t want to listen to us either but they had no choice. The more of us that are there, the less choice they’ve got.

XW: Maybe they’ll listen to the Bloc instead?

JL: Well, the Bloc has now indicated-even though it was divided on the same-sex vote, I forget how many of their members voted against it but there were five or six I think-but Duceppe has now said that they will act in a united fashion on that issue.

If you have lots of New Democrats in the House then you are protecting that right that has been secured. Elected Liberals will not do that, because you have 29 of their candidates who are not going to go that way.

One more point on strategic voting: when you try to get cute with your vote, you often get some nasty surprises. Best to vote for what you really believe in. That always produces the best results.

XW: Some queers feel left out of NDP policies. They say that they’re very family-oriented in a traditional, nuclear family sort of way. Are you really just a left-wing Focus on the Family?

JL: Not at all. I don’t see why people would say that. We do talk about families but we talk about people, we talk about seniors, we talk about young people. And besides, most gay people I know, they feel part of a family, one form of a family or another. And what we’ve helped to do is broaden the concept of what family is all about. And I think that that’s important to do.

XW: What’s your message to queer voters on Jan 23?

JL: If the queer community is looking for advocacy and results, as I always said when I helped to fundraise with [Toronto’s gay theatre company] Buddies in Bad Times over so many years, you’ve got to do what you believe in. And that means voting for the NDP. You’ll get a party that stands for you and your issues, for fairness and equality, for justice and for the services that are needed from affordable housing right on through to childcare.