“We’re not exactly neophytes when it comes to controversy around our sponsorship of Pride,” says Scott Mullin, vice president of government and community relations at TD Bank Financial Group. “Our support for Pride has been unequivocal since we started as a sponsor five years ago,” he explains, despite taking “a fair bit of grief.”
“We had people pull their money out of the bank, we had churches north of Toronto start a campaign to pull business out of the bank,” Mullin says, “and we remained very steadfast in saying that we thought it was important for us as a company to make the statement we were making.”
In a March 30 letter to Tracey Sandilands, executive director of Pride Toronto, Mullin reiterates TD’s support but adds, “I will be honest and say that it has become increasingly challenging to do so,” following Pride’s reversal of its new and controversial policy of vetting all parade groups and signs.
“We’ve asked for a meeting,” Mullin says. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to write a letter asking what’s going on.” The TD exec says, “we have indicated a bit of frustration, to be honest, because we too have stakeholders and customers and clients who write to us with views on this topic.”
Mullin says the bank is looking to Pride for guidance and not seeing any: “Pride came up with a policy and one week later, completely changed their minds on that policy and didn’t bother to tell folks like sponsors who were using what Pride had decided on as a way of responding ourselves to people who were expressing concerns. Any sponsor — whether a bank, a beer company or a government — will reach a point at which questions start to get asked.”
Pride’s aborted “freedom of expression” policy came about after arguments over the inclusion of the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA).
Activist Rick Telfer posted Mullin’s letter to Pride on his website and on Facebook, where he wrote, “I think the subtext of the letter is pretty clear…‘We don’t like certain activists. We want them out.’”
Not at all, insists Mullin.
“We approached this from the get-go knowing that it would have controversy, and we’re not afraid of that, but we want to be involved in an event that is inclusive, that is welcoming, that is celebratory, that focuses on issues that matter to the community and realizes that some of those issues are edgy, difficult and protest-related.”
Activists like Telfer argue that issues of Palestinian freedom or human rights abuses very much matter to the community — does the TD exec agree?
“Absolutely,” says Mullin. “That is a view. We don’t have a view on that question. What we do have concerns about — and I think we’re not alone — is that the event needs to be cognizant of sensitivities on both sides. There is no question that for most people, people marching in a Pride parade wearing swastikas is not a very welcoming and inclusive signal to a broad Toronto community.”
Mullin, of course, is referring to QuAIA’s use of a red circle with a line through the swastika — not the symbol by itself, as opponents like Reclaiming Our Pride creator Martin Gladstone have asserted — but Mullin says the distinction doesn’t matter. Anti or not, he says, “the symbol itself is very unpleasant and legimately so. I would hope that these people would have the same strong views on legislation in Uganda which looks a lot closer to the era of the swastika in terms of an issue for the LGBT community.”
Ultimately, says Mullin, “there is a line of acceptability that Pride has to take some responsibility for in ensuring that all members of the community feel welcome at the event. I don’t pretend that it’s easy to find that line, but there is certainly a strong group of people who feel that line has been crossed and any sponsor — whether a bank, a beer company or a government — will reach a point at which questions start to get asked.”
On that last point, Mullin insists that TD Bank Financial Group is not the only group asking Pride for a meeting.
Don Wanagas, director of communications for Mayor David Miller, says, “City staff are meeting with the Pride board to discuss the situation. The mayor will not be in a position to comment until staff have reported back on the outcome of that meeting.”
Until that meeting takes place, the City of Toronto has remained silent on the issue of Pride funding, but Mullin darkly hints, “I do know that the city has expressed concerns about the event’s positioning vis-à-vis policies the city has around events that it sponsors, endorses and allows to have happen.”
For the bank, Mullin says, it comes down to a simple question:
“What is the Pride board’s view of the nature of this event? The challenge Pride has is not whether people personally disagree but more the extent to which language is used that crosses a line. There’s going to be different views of that line, and we’re trying to understand where Pride is going to come out on an issue that we are caught in the middle between.”
“I guess we’ll see how things unfold,” Mullin says, but adds, “I hope in the process we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”