Let’s say your ex was spreading a nasty rumour about you. Would you rather know about it so that you could respond, if necessary, or would you prefer to remain blissfully ignorant?
What if there were a bunch of rednecks in Alberta spouting off about how homos were corrupting society? Would you rather be left to sip your latte on insular ol’ Church St in peace, oblivious to the potential threat to your rights? Or would you want to know what was being said about you by your fellow Canadians so you could decide whether action needed to be taken?
This is the question behind an ongoing human rights complaint out Brokeback Mountain way. In 2002 Stephen Boissoin, then national chairman of a rightwing group called the Concerned Christian Coalition, sent a letter to the Red Deer Advocate newspaper in which he called homos “perverse, self-centered and morally deprived individuals who are spreading their psychological disease into every area of our lives” and called on Canadians to “take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness” that we queers have been perpetrating. Charming.
In response, a well-meaning prof at the University of Alberta named Darren Lund filed a human rights complaint against the preacher, arguing that “Boissoin’s rhetoric is inflammatory and alarmist, and steps far over the line of responsible public comment on such a sensitive social issue.”
No doubt the fact that a queer teen was bashed a couple weeks after the letter was published spurred on Lund in his desire to see something done about Boissoin’s homophobia.
At the time that all this ugliness was unfolding, national lobby group Egale Canada had to decide whether to get involved in the case or not. The group ultimately decided to respectfully oppose the complaint. Then-executive directior Gilles Marchildon responded stating that, while Boissoin’s arguments were outrageously homophobic, “We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Last month the case reached the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Committee, where Boissoin is predictably arguing that he has democratic right to free speech on his side.
In Xtra’s coverage last issue staff reporter Rob Salerno suggested that Egale should have backed Lund’s complaint; that it should have put the right to not be exposed to religiously motivated hate above the rights of free speech. Furthermore he reported that Egale’s new executive director Helen Kennedy would have preferred to see the lobby group intervene on Lund’s behalf, but, alas, that the decision had been made by the last board.
I’d like to respectfully disagree with Salerno’s position and to ask Kennedy to reconsider hers.
As I see it there are two very good reasons for homos to support free speech, even, if not especially, when what is being said pisses us off. The first is that queers want to be able to mouth off ourselves, which, as a general rule, we do. We don’t want to see our ideas, literature, art or porn censored because someone out in Red Deer thinks it’s offensive, so why would we turn around and censor the rednecks when they offend us?
The second is that censoring criticism, no matter how nasty or seemingly insane, leads to complacency, and complacency isn’t something that any minority can afford to succumb to.
Yes, Boissoin is a schmuck whose homophobic letter no doubt offended a lot of people, people who didn’t deserve to have their feelings hurt. But rather than shutting him up, as Lund would have us do, the queer rights movement would be better served by responding with letters of our own, with education and visibility campaigns and with open debate.
If you don’t know what’s being said behind your back — in churches, in faith-based schools, on the streets of small-town Canada — how can you hope to counter it? It’s smarter to keep an eye on the enemy, to engage with him in the hope of winning him over, even, than to find yourself ambushed one day.