9 min

Next time, let’s sell votes to the highest bidder

Uniting behind a party is the only way to get our agenda moving again

Some 23 million Canadians are eligible to vote. Assuming that gays and lesbians account for some five percent of the population (a conservative estimate), that means we can cast some 1.2 million ballots.

That’s quite a prize for political parties to try and win. Gays and lesbians have incredible potential to influence election outcomes. We could have real clout.

Now, it’s true that those 1.2 million gay and lesbian voters aren’t all clustered in one or two ridings. As we like to say, we are everywhere. There are gays and lesbians in every one of the 308 ridings across Canada. In rural and small-city ridings, we’re a small number of the total voters and unable to make much of a difference in local, provincial or federal politics.

But for a couple of generations at least, most Canadian gays and lesbians who grow up in small towns and rural and resource areas have moved to big cities and reinvented themselves. We’re concentrated in a half-dozen major cities across Canada: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax and Winnipeg in that order. We have sufficient numbers to be able to crown winners in perhaps four Toronto ridings, three Vancouver ridings, one in Ottawa, one in Calgary, one in Halifax and one in Winnipeg. But there are also enough of us in a few other cities, including Saskatoon and Edmonton, to make a difference in very close riding races there, too.

Add to that the number of friends and relatives who may be influenced by our pleas in some elections, and clearly we could have a lot of political clout — if we got organized.

Members of other communities have built a consensus to focus their votes in a way that wins them the laws and policies they want. The whole province of Quebec is one example; sure, individual voters there cast their ballots for all parties, but the majority figure out the party that’s going to deliver the most perks for the province and unify behind it. It used to be the Liberals they lined up behind, but now they see the Bloq as the party that gets them what they need. By withholding their vote from the Liberals and Conservatives, they keep those parties coughing up goodies when they are in power in a never-ending effort to seduce majority backing.

The Jewish vote in Canada does the same, insisting on unconditional support for the state of Israel in exchange for supporting the top parties. It works.

In Surrey, BC the Sikh community variously supports the NDP or the Liberals — provincially and federally — as it parlays its vote to the highest bidder. In Richmond, BC, the Chinese-Canadian community (made up there largely of people who have moved to Canada since the 1980s and their kids) has focussed its vote to increase influence over the school board, city council and the provincial and federal government. Stephen Harper kicked off this election campaign with a poignant press conference held in the Richmond backyard of an “average” Chinese-Canadian family.

The Chinese community of Richmond is profoundly socially conservative. They’ve largely abandoned the federal Liberals in favour of the Harper Conservatives out of anger over same-sex marriage recognition. A dozen miles away, in the historic Chinatown of East Vancouver, Chinese-Canadian voters, most of them third and fourth and even sixth generation Canadians, vote for the NDP’s Libby Davies. They’ll take the NDP’s pro-immigration, anti-racism positions over Harper’s anti-gay actions any day.

Of course, there are Jewish voters, Sikh voters and Richmond Chinese-Canadian voters who don’t follow the pack. But enough them do that it has an impact on elections. And, very importantly, the prospect of winning these votes in the next election causes party leaders to shift their priorities and adjust their policies to make them more attractive to them.

We could have the same impact if we learned to play a more astute and, yes, more brutal form of politics. It started this past election. There were signs that many gays and lesbians were prepared to vote strategically to stop Harper rather than cast their vote for their traditional party of choice. Judging by our reader’s responses on, the mere suggestion of this caused queer party activists into paroxysms.

Who do we traditionally vote for? Well, finally we have some numbers in Canada on this.

A study on the voting patterns in the 2006 general election found that only 7.3 percent of gay men and 10.7 percent of lesbians voted for the Conservative Party. Not surprising. Perhaps more interesting, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) found that gay men tend to support the Liberals and lesbians tend to vote NDP. Specifically, 40 percent of gay men voted Liberal and 41 percent of lesbians voted NDP.

Perhaps some of this can be explained by the somewhat higher income that gay men make in comparison to lesbians — in other words, there’s a class dynamic at work here. But there are other reasons that need consideration. The Canadian socialist left evolved largely out of a New Jerusalem religious movement and the anti-alcohol temperance movement, and those tendencies, which are still with the party, can be a turnoff for gay men. As well, second-wave feminists — those who are uncomfortable with sexual freedom and exploration and gender play and who are sometimes profoundly pro-censorship — are in positions of power and influence in the NDP. Feminism has moved on to a more interesting pro-sex, gender exploring, anti-censorship third wave — largely thanks to lesbian thinkers and activists — but the NDP clearly hasn’t received that memo. These combine to make many gay men, and some lesbians, uncomfortable with the NDP.

On the other hand, the Liberal party has at best a mixed record on gay issues. The Chrétien government successfully encouraged its caucus to back a Reform Party motion defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The Liberals fought every important gay rights legal case of the last two decades through the courts, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. They never once went out on a limb for our equality rights; we had to dig into our pockets time after time, and those in our community with the courage to take discrimination to the courts were put through the intense emotional stress that comes with a prolonged legal battle. They didn’t force Canada Customs to stop discriminating against us and our bookstores even after the Supremes ruled against Customs. As well, the Liberals virtually eliminated public spending on affordable housing and didn’t live up to their promises for childcare. These issues combined drive many lesbians, and some gay men, to the NDP.

Of course, there’s a difference between our community as a whole and the lesbians and gays who are party activists. For decades, gay and lesbians worked within their party of choice to make them more gay-friendly, and then tried to lure us to support their party. Of course, some parties were faster than others to embrace our cause. Even the old Progressive Conservatives became more open, over time, to the idea that laws should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The PCs had a block called the “red Tories,” middle-of-the-road conservatives, who managed to reduce the anti-gay rhetoric of that party and converted many party members to accept equality rights.

But not all parties are open to us. Gays who joined Preston Manning’s Reform Party were shouted down at party conferences. That party went out of its way to gay bash in both their official policies and their determined hostility to proud gays joining them.

Those Reformers have largely pushed aside the influence of the moderate Progressive Conservatives and now control the Conservative party under Stephen Harper. Many of the red Tories now vote Liberal.

So, the gays and lesbians within each party are doing important work. But they’re true believers in their parties. Especially at a time of an election, they’re party activists first, and queer second. We should never forget that. Like religious proselytizers, we should be very wary of them.

As a collectivity, the rest of us need to start figuring out how to make the system work for us in a time where our movement has stalled federally. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized many, but not all, of our demands for equality. Gays equality rights have done better at the Supremes than those of women or the poor or the homeless or union members. And the parts of our Charter that deal with freedoms have done very poorly before the top court. The right not to be censored has taken a terrible battering, the rights for sexual freedom and equality, the rights of assembly, of free speech and conscience, of protection from police excesses and government paranoia in the age of the security state — these have all done very poorly at the Supremes. And they all affect us because without the rights of gays and lesbians to our own kinds of sexual expression, or artistic expression or to hold a demonstration we are exactly the people that governments and police single out for special attention and harassment.

So the Supremes recognized same-sex marriage rights and the right not to get fired at work. But on all these other rights, they’ve essentially said that it’s up to Parliament, not the courts, to fix things. There’s not much remaining on our long list in our struggle for freedom that can be accomplished at the courts. We have to win them in the political arena. But to oversimplify just a little, all the parties are acting as if gays and lesbians have had our day with the passage of same-sex marriage rights. They’re not interested in being out front fighting for us on the many issues still outstanding — see here for a list of nearly 20 important things still to be accomplished.

They sure made that clear in the past two parliaments. Both the NDP and the Liberals let down gays and lesbians. The first case occurred when the Paul Martin minority government chose to eliminate the defence that the Supreme Court had bestowed on artists dealing with controversial topics. They did it under disguise, claiming it was about fighting child porn, but the law went far beyond that and angered arts groups, gay activists and civil libertarians in away that is reminiscent of the current furor over Stephen Harper’s Bill C-10 censorship bill. Gays rightly pointed out that the bill would end up being used by police and Crown attorneys to target, in the way that these things always are, lesbian and gay artists. But even after lobbying by artists and activists, the Liberals refused to abandon or alter the bill and the NDP ended up voting for it. So much for supporting our community.

Then in the last Parliament, the Harper government introduced legislation to raise the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14. Again, civil libertarians and the more astute gay groups opposed it. Gay youth even created an organization to oppose the legislation and addressed the Commons Justice committee and the Senate. The NDP made a play to have the age of anal sex lowered to 16 as part of the bill (the higher sodomy age is aimed straight at gay sex, as some judges have ruled in overturning it in several provinces), but Harper was having none of that. Our activists noted that laws like these infantilize teens, depriving youth of the right to control their own bodies. And they noted that these sorts of laws are disproportionately used to target the gay community. In the end the Liberals and the NDP joined with Harper to roll back already established sex rights (with gay NDP MP Bill Siksay the only member of either caucus with a clear enough mind to vote against it).

The Liberals and the NDP have sold us out twice in three years as they voted strategically to make sure they didn’t offend people in rural Saskatchewan. Again, our community’s artists and youth were expendable on the alter of political expediency.

So, neither the Liberals nor the NDP are there for us when there’s a major downside to supporting us. By the time they voted for same-sex marriage, the issue had been essentially imposed on them by the courts and they had nothing to lose. In voting for gays and lesbian artists (and others) and youth, they potentially had more votes to lose. Result: they abandoned us.

I point that out not just because these two back-to-back actions led more than a few gay men to burn membership cards, but more importantly because it highlights the importance of our community getting organized to vote strategically in future. The Liberals and NDP each calculated that they would not lose many gay and lesbian votes if they voted against artists and gay youth. Where else are we going to go? they no doubt asked. Fair question.

The answer is that we need to learn to play the Liberals off against the NDP for our vote. We need a bidding war. You want our 1.2 million votes? You want public endorsements from our groups, our leaders, and our newspapers? You start earning that every election: we’ve got a list of 20 laws we want changed. We expect three changes per term. And, yes, you’re going to reform Canada Customs and you’re going to fully legalize prostitution and gay bathhouses. And yes, you’re going to recognize the rights to gender identity and gender expression. And the rights of lesbians to use gay men as sperm donors. And you’re going to stop criminalizing HIV and better fund HIV prevention programs. And allow gays to donate blood and organs. And you’re going to further protect us from religious extremists through increased separation of church and state. And so on.

The point is, we don’t owe anything to any party. The party activists lobby us, trying to convince us that their party is fully committed to our rights, blah, blah, blah. But we must not be swayed. We don’t owe for past performance, and certainly not the sell-outs of the past two governments. The questions we should always ask, if we want to be taken seriously as a large potential voter block are: 1. What have you done for us lately? and 2. What are you going to do for us next? That’s how we get results.

It’s worked for Jewish voters. It’s worked for Quebec voters. It’s working for Sikh and Chinese-Canadian voters. We need to get more sophisticated in choosing who gets our vote. We need to forget our party loyalties and make our collective vote available for bidding.

Only then will we make progress in Parliament. Until then, the Conservatives will continue to introduce laws that oppress us while satisfying their core constituency. And the Liberals and NDP, whether in government or opposition, will sell us out for more guaranteed votes elsewhere and listen to the sex-negative voices in their caucuses.