Newsflash: conservatives used to say really, really homophobic things.
Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski was outed last week for his past homophobia.
The provincial NDP released video footage of Progressive Conservative workers at campaign headquarters during the 1991 provincial election which showed Lukiwski holding a beer bottle and referring to homosexuals as “faggots with dirt on their fingernails that transmit diseases.”
The video prompted calls for his resignation, and a five-minute apology from Lukiwski in the House of Commons.
Lukiwski’s apology to “the entire gay and lesbian community” included denouncing his comments: “the comments I made should not be tolerated in any society. They should not be tolerated today. They should not have been tolerated in 1991.” And it included denouncing himself “I was stupid, thoughtless and insensitive.”
But, here’s the thing. In 1991, you couldn’t swing a stick and not find homophobic comments. The legal and political battles being waged at the time for gay and lesbian rights were intense. And the opposition did not mince words. Homosexuality was seen as immoral.
In the US, in the 1990s, Congress debated and passed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. The debates were as homophobic as homophobic could be: religion, immorality, the fall of western civilization, hedonism, blah, blah, blah.
But, in the early 2000s, when Congress revisited same-sex marriage, this time, in terms of whether to pass a constitutional amendment protecting opposite sex marriage, the discourse had changed.
The bible thumping homophobia was largely gone. There was still lots of chatter about tradition and the traditional family and importance of procreating in a heterosexual family. But, the blatant condemnation of gay and lesbian folks was gone.
In fact, there was a new argument from the conservatives: defending marriage isn’t discriminatory. Conservatives were on the defensive here, being accused of being homophobic and discriminatory, in trying to write a discriminatory definition of marriage right into the Constitution. And their best defense was a good defense.
As one Senator said: “The traditional institution of marriage is not discrimination. And I find it offensive to call it that. Marriage was not created to oppress people. It was created for children.”
Another denounced the “myth . . . that proponents of traditional marriage are writing discrimination into the Constitution. This argument is both curious and offensive.”
What a great argument: the offense now lies not in the discrimination, but in calling someone a discriminator.
In 10 years, the landscape had changed. It was no longer okay to say “yes, we want to discriminate against gay people because we don’t like them.”
And so it is in Canada. Back in the late 80s and the early 90s, it was still okay to say that gay people didn’t deserve rights or equality because they were, well, yucky. We were accused of all sorts of things: we lived “deviant lifestyles”, we weren’t Christian, we shouldn’t adopt children, we were a bunch of pedophiles. The list went on and on.
In the late 1980s, when Svend Robinson came out, Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine compared homosexuals to bank robbers, and British Columbia Premier Bill Vander Zalm said that he would be concerned about having a gay member in his cabinet.
In Ontario, when the NDP introduced the first bill to extend rights to same-sex couples in 1994 (Bill 167), all but three Liberals voted against it. Current Premier Dalton McGuinty voted against it. Sure, he later changed his mind. But, at the time, it was easy to be against gay and lesbian rights, and hard to be for them.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Lukiwski scandal is that it illustrates just how dramatically times have changed. It just isn’t okay to be so homophobic anymore — at least not in public.
Are they actually any less homophobic in private? I have my doubts that their best friends are gay. Or that they have attended a lot of gay weddings. Or, that they voted in favour of same-sex marriage.
If we take a quick look at Lukiwski’s voting record, hmmm, how surprising to find out that he voted against same-sex marriage.
I guess it’s progress that comments like Lukiwski’s just don’t fly anymore. But, we shouldn’t be very surprised when his conservative colleagues so readily accept his apology. Their homophobia is now just a bit more subterranean. It’s harder to catch on videotape.
But, when the white straight conservative dudes in Parliament around Lukiwski give him a standing ovation for his apology, one can’t help but wondering what they are ovating him for. There is a look in their eyes, part fear, part sympathy — it could have been any one of us.
It’s probably only a matter of time until one of them pulls out a version of the “it’s offensive for you not to accept my apology” argument. The offender becomes the victim. There’s already a bit of it emerging: poor guy, let’s just move on.
So, 17 years later, we’ve come a long way baby. Gay rights and same-sex marriage and more social acceptability. But, it doesn’t change the spots on the old boys. These dudes can apologize all they want — I just don’t believe that they actually like us any more today than they did then.