4 min

Oh look, another country

Can Canada teach the US anything?

REACHING OUT TO OUR BUSH-Y NEIGHBOURS. B-Girl Barbie Q shows an American the Canadian way. Credit: Xtra files

Two years after John F Kennedy called for Americans to end racism and Martin Luther King, Jr inspired a movement with his “I have a dream” speech, 10 activists staged a gay rights protest on Jul 4, 1965, marching in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, birthplace of the American Constitution.

Operating on gay time, we were a little late to join the civil rights party. More disturbing, we still are.

Last month, 39 years after that historic gay protest, I travelled to Philadelphia, home of the relatively unknown Equality Forum, which bills itself as a national and international gay, bisexual, lesbian and trans (GBLT) civil rights movement, though it falls somewhat short on both counts.

For a week at the end of April, Equality Forum (which started as PrideFest Philadelphia in 1993) holds a summit meeting of US queer leaders, with 80 nonprofit organizations, major gay, bi, lesbian and trans executive directors and business folks gathering for some 55 panel discussions. To remind American queers that an outside world exists, Equality Forum also honours a featured nation. According to executive director Malcolm Lazin, that international presence “gives Americans, who are traditionally insular, an opportunity to learn about others.”

This year Canada took the cake for our achievements on same-sex marriage. A 20-plus contingent of gay heavyweights (plus media) flew in for the event, including former justice minister Martin Cauchon, who accepted Equality Forum’s Role Model Of The Year Award for championing gay rights in Parliament (his award back in Canada was getting nudged out of his Outremont riding to make room for Martinite candidate Jean Lapierre).

The evening I arrived, US queer leaders (of both Republican and Democratic variety, of both businesses and nonprofits) gathered down the street from Independence Hall. The topic? How to avoid getting creamed in the November presidential elections.

President George Bush has backed a proposed amendment to the US constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Lazin likes to make this analogy: The last president to back a constitutional amendment that would reduce rather than expand civil liberties was James Buchanan in 1861 – his proposed amendment to entrench slavery in the constitution was rewritten by the Civil War.

Many Canadians just don’t get what’s at stake. While we have reaped many of the same benefits as heterosexual couples since 1999 (thanks to a Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex partnerships), US queer couples are denied 1,138 rights that US married heterosexual couples have. These are basic everyday things like the right to visit your partner in hospital or be included in your partner’s benefit or pension plan.

“It’s very scary and unnerving,” says Douglas Elliott, a Toronto lawyer and president of the International Gay And Lesbian Law Association. He spoke at several symposiums. “There’s a well-financed, well-organized opposition going around in SWAT teams trying to squash our movement. Any time you get a [gay friendly] law passed [in the US], there’s a lawsuit trying to take it away.”

Unfortunately, the Americans left in droves after the Presidential Election 2004 symposium, so didn’t hear how Canada achieved our enviable rights for queers.

“It’s frustrating when you’re asked to come and speak about your experience and it seems you’re speaking to yourself,” says Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae, who dubbed the From Monarchy To Equality symposium “What a difference a queen makes.”

It was a different story at symposiums where lavender legal eagles gathered. Same-sex marriage and gay rights issues have finally put us in the American consciousness. “It was strange for us to have this kind of interest in anything coming out of Canada, other than for cold fronts,” says Elliot.

I noted the same thing, chatting to locals at the forum parties. So did former Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury, there to promote the new World Out Games, Rendezvous 2006 in Montreal. “My favourite thing [about being at the forum] was being Canadian. We were the model. We were the ones people were looking to for leadership. It’s appropriate and it’s time.”

Indeed, over a posh dinner in the Old City, the director of a major gay and lesbian cultural festival in Philadelphia told me that if Bush is re-elected, he would seriously consider moving to Canada, then joked that Canada might well become a destination for a queer underground railroad.

The fledgling Canadian Gay And Lesbian Chamber Of Commerce, which organized Canada’s participation at the forum, attempted to capitalize on that interest. Co-founder Darrell Schuurman estimates that Equality Forum generated $3-million worth of media coverage for Canada, but our tourism symposium showed that we lag far behind queer Americans on two fronts: business savvy and self-promotion.

While Canada’s symposium was floundering (was the panel talking about Canada or how to mount a queer tourism campaign?), Philadelphia tourism corporation’s gay point man Jeff Guaracino took two minutes to describe how Philly created a caucus of stakeholders launched the nation’s largest GBLT tourism campaign for that city.

Rae said Toronto was dropping the ball on using same-sex marriage as a tourism tool. Schuurman admitted that Canada could stand to be more coordinated in its marketing efforts.

“This was our first shot at going out there and creating awareness of Canada as a GBLT destination. It got a good kick-start there.” The chamber will follow up with a five-year initiative starting this fall.

One of the brightest lights on Canada’s panels was Ontario’s Health Minister George Smitherman, a gung-ho last-minute fill-in for Svend Robinson, the usual ring-boy at this event. (The only snickers on his stress and theft-induced retreat from public life came from the gay Canadian media.)

Who knew the buttoned-down Smitherman could be so, well, hilariously gay? At a swank cocktail party Canada hosted for media, he compared his physique to swimmer Mark Tewksbury’s – though saying he’s “more of a floater” – and his hockey style as “more Tanya Harding.” Of Philadelphia’s slogan – “the city that loves you back” – Smitherman said he sure hoped so.

*For more on the Equality Forum, check out