3 min

Pride Toronto should embrace free expression, even if it means less cash

In a Feb 9 letter to Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands, Ward 27 city councillor Kyle Rae wrote that he “found the intervention of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) in last year’s Pride parade completely out of keeping with the spirit and values of Pride Toronto.”

Rae urged the organization’s board of directors to “review the parade entrance requirements to ensure that Pride’s mission, vision and values are reflected in the contingent’s participation.”

In other words, hinted Rae, get QuAIA to soften its political messaging. Tell its members to stop using the term “Israeli apartheid” in the parade. If they can’t be convinced, prevent them from marching altogether.

A month later, Pride announced its sign-vetting policy.

It was pure folly from the beginning. Pride Toronto agreed to take on the mantle of censor and to establish an ethics committee empowered to weed out unsavoury political views. Sandilands told me the organization was drafting a “freedom of expression policy.” It was all so positively Orwellian, as though a series of directives issued in newspeak from the Ministry of Truth.

But as you’d expect, gay and lesbian people saw right through it all and called Pride Toronto on its obvious misstep. And to its credit, on March 23, the organization issued a brief correction setting things right.

Tempest in a teapot, tamed. Time to move on.

But then on April 18, a report in the Toronto Star‘s online edition quoted Mike Williams, Toronto’s general manager of economic development and culture, saying that QuAIA likely violated the city’s anti-discrimination policy and that Pride Toronto risked losing city funding next year if it doesn’t do something about it this year.

“We have the right to disqualify them from future grants, so we certainly would look at that,” Williams told the Star. “Every circumstance is different, so I’m loath to tell somebody flat out, ‘If this happens you won’t get your money next year.’ But it sure would become a very strong possibility.”

Pride Toronto received almost one third of its $3 million in revenue in 2009 from various levels of government. A little more than $173,000 came from the City of Toronto (ironically, $5,000 of that in the form of an Access, Equity and Human Rights Grant). More than a third more came from corporate sponsorships. Pride Toronto raised the remainder — $822,668 — itself by collecting donations and participation fees, and by selling beer and advertising.

Pride Toronto has been mainlining government and corporate sponsorship dollars for some time now. And when the dealer wants a favour, it hardly ever seems too much to ask. This is a perfect illustration of the perils of relying on — of believing there is an absolute need for — government grant and corporate sponsorship money for advocacy work. There are almost always strings attached, hoops to jump through and conditions to meet. A little concession here, some creative rationalization there, a little going back on the things you believe; it’s all worth it in the end when you weigh all the good you can do with a huge pile of government cash.

But the cost in this case is simply too high. Censoring the opinions of parade participants, no matter what they are, flies in the face of everything the gay liberation movement was built upon.

It’s great that gay and lesbian people have the support of government for the cultural and economic contributions we make to Canadian society. We should be grateful for that support. But our political representatives, corporate funders and Pride organizers need to accept that when faced with an ultimatum like this one — to censor and be funded, or to do the right thing but live more frugally — the moral high ground is simply not for sale.

QuAIA members should march in the parade with whatever signage they see fit. Pride Toronto should make clear to its funders that it is grateful for all their financial support but that free expression — whether it be political messaging, nudity or same-sex sexual expression — is a beautiful part of gay culture that simply ought to be embraced.

If funders can’t accept that, they should fund something else.