3 min

Peace, love & pilfering

Understanding will make you a social pariah

Somehow the concept of “understanding” has lost the shine its partners “peace” and “love” have managed to sustain.

Merriam-Webster gives “to grasp the meaning of” as the first definition of “understand.” Increasingly it has come to mean “to endorse or sympathize.” Since nobody wants to be caught endorsing people or things that are bad, foreign or unpopular, it’s better to leave them misunderstood.

For example, the smear campaign against Toronto Police Services Board chair Alan Heisey turned on the word “understand.” When Det-Sgt Paul Gillespie’s quoted Heisey in a leaked 2002 memo as saying, “I understand how one could be attracted to the beautiful young body of an eight-year-old, but not children in diapers,” this was taken as a damning utterance, as if Heisey was bouncing his weekend plans off Gillespie. Gillespie and many members of the media weren’t prepared to allow that Heisey was thoughtful, rather than lust-filled. Our society can’t buy the fact that someone would try to understand something he or she didn’t have a personal stake in.

You can use your own power of understanding to become a social pariah. In varying social circumstances, try these positions out: “I understand why homosexuality makes some straight people uncomfortable.” “I understand the pleasure of impersonal, anonymous sex.” “I understand why someone would want to get married.” “I understand Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino.”

All these statements could lead to insightful conversation. But most people are too afraid to say them for fear that others will rat them out as homophobes, perverts, sell-outs or outlaws.

Which brings us to Svend Robinson’s ring-grabbing Gollum incident (turn to pages 11 and 18 for more).

Gay men tend to fall into two categories in their reaction to Svend’s teary-eyed shoplifting episode: those who are embarrassed – you should be glad he didn’t nick a wig or cosmetics – and those who, in an act of denial, immediately start talking about his pioneering political career. Both create a distance between what he did and ourselves as gay and lesbian people. Is there a way for us to understand Svend’s behaviour without admitting to our own personal anxieties as queer folk?

After all, Robinson, publicly out since 1987, is Canada’s most famous openly gay man. Drop him at Yasser Arafat’s front door, shoot rubber police bullets at him or knock him off a cliff, the words “openly gay” appear in almost every news story about him.

Robinson’s meltdown was gay in both substance and style. Suffering from the “good little boy syndrome” that afflicts many gay men, Robinson had put a brave face on whatever personal pain he was enduring. Robinson had obviously built an elaborate and unstable emotional mechanism to deal with his undisclosed troubles, resulting in a horrifically non-butch tear-fest. Suicide attempts, blotto drinking and driving, overdoses, risky sex, foolhardy shoplifting – they’re all calls for help from people who hold it all inside. Unfortunately it’s a common problem for people who feel out of synch with and mis-understood by the straight world.

The incident also plays out queer fears about how the boundaries between our public and private lives can so easily collapse. We can fear our private lives being made public in an outing. We can feel we have to screen our relationships and affections in order to avoid harassment or family trouble. We can feel our sex lives will lead to discrimination in our careers. It’s hard to compartmentalize queer sexuality.

Compare Svend’s incident to the time in 1989 when his NDP colleague Lorne Nystrom was charged and acquitted for taking something from a drug store. What did we learn about Nystrom’s personal life? That he wears contact lenses.

But look at the hoopla over Svend. Media coverage has tied everything to his gayness. His target was possibly a wedding ring (didn’t the rightwingers warn us that same-sex marriage would harm society?). His only other out NDP colleague, Libby Davies, was at his side. Much was made of his partner Max Riveron’s appearance at the press conference and talk about their relationship problems.

Being an openly gay politician is an all or nothing project. Now I understand the problem with the all side of it.

* Paul Gallant is Xtra’s managing editor.