I tried to stifle a laugh.
“The activists don’t bring up marriage first of all; they start with one thing, then they move on to something else. Before you know it, they want same-sex marriage, then they want equality of adoption, then they want to promote homosexuality in schools. That’s the process.”
That was Diane Watts, a researcher and spokesperson for REAL Women of Canada, a socially conservative advocacy organization that I’ve profiled on numerous occasions. I was speaking to her on the evening that her group threw down the gauntlet over Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s “promotion” of homosexuality abroad. (Baird had criticized Uganda and Russia for passing anti-gay legislation.)
“We value the family, and our institutions have been changed because of the homosexual activism,” Watts told me.
Their views, of course, were readily brushed off. Every metre of their rhetoric was laughed at. How drôle.
Some comments were wry: “Why don’t they go off and suck up to their fundamentalist patriarchal and gay-hating friends in the Taliban?”
But 10 years ago, that rhetoric was pretty well commonplace. Politicians and proselytizers alike warned of the “homosexual lobby” and of the dystopian hellscape that would exist if gays kept receiving substantive, broader rights.
They were right, in the end; there really was a gay lobby, and it was damned effective.
That lobby made sure that our rights were not just an ebbing of the tide but became the core of our progressive society. Where the gay community was once a marginalized faction, we are now a part of the establishment. Where once the state worked to stunt our movement, it now fights other states who do the same.
While the struggle continues for smaller minorities within the queer community — trans people, for example — it is now blasphemy to advocate standing still on gay rights, let alone taking a step back.
From the bathhouse riots to grassroots organizing and ACT UP, we made it into the courts and eventually stuck our foot in the door of the political system.
But in this round of musical chairs, there is one group left standing.
John McKay is the federal Liberal member of Parliament for Scarborough-Guildwood.
In his 17-odd years as an MP, he’s come to be known as a sharp policy mind and as a dedicated social conservative. He was a member of the ever-shrinking pro-life caucus and was offside on his government’s stated position on the gay marriage vote. McKay, an evangelical Catholic, argued that legalizing gay marriage would hurt the institution and increase divorce rates. He didn’t end up voting against his government’s bill; he abstained.
When discussing his support for a study to examine when human life begins — seen as a backdoor into regulating abortion — he told Sun News that his contrarian position on the issue made things “awkward” at times. “I don’t like to go against my colleagues or the platform of the Liberal Party. It is not a lot of fun,” he said. But, he continued, “I think my opinion should count for something.”
But McKay’s opinions have become less the convictions of one man and more the indictment of a political party. In the last week of the Toronto Centre federal by-election, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, then just a candidate, posted a picture in which she had her arm around McKay. That set off the ire of Justin Stayshyn, who works for the Ontario NDP.
“It may come across as a bit odd to have a candidate for the riding with Canada’s highest proportion of LGBTQ people posing with her arm around a guy with a long record of opposing gay rights,” he wrote on his blog. He also took to Twitter to flatly suggest that Freeland’s support for the queer community ought to be in question. Other partisans joined the pile-on, especially thanks to the awesome power of social-media groupthink.
Freeland’s repeated and emphatic support for gay rights was irrelevant in the context — touching a man who opposed gay marriage eight years ago somehow taints that support, like he was afflicted with a terminal virus. Like a leper. Merely touching him could communicate the contagion and turn you, too, into a virulent homophobe.
This isn’t just one-off partisan opportunism — though it is certainly that, as well — it’s symptomatic of a shift. Bring up Employment Minister Jason Kenney in queer company and you’re sure to hear some mumbling of “self-hating gay.” (There is no evidence of Kenney being gay, for the record.)
Kenney opposed gay marriage while the debate was had. When it was over, he muted his objections. Whether he opposes it now or not is immaterial — if he ever vocalized it, his political capital would plummet. And continuing to chide Kenney, or any other federal politician, over his past non-support of gay marriage dwarves, in a way that is emblematic of a long narcissistic streak in the cisgendered gay community, the fact that he refused to support the federal Trans Rights Bill.
The gay community has a chip on its shoulder from the politicians and preachers that it once fought, passing it off as a never-again mentality.
It’s not a popular opinion, but it’s true: the gay lobby has become the bully.
Ted Bird was a morning radio host on Montreal’s TSN 990.
In July, I was about to hop on the metro in Montreal and head to a panel discussion on a friend’s podcast about the Sochi boycott. I got a message pointing me to Bird’s blog, so I gave it a read. “Gay rights have evolved into a political issue in North America, but in many parts of the world it’s still a moral issue, and it’s no one’s place to impose their moral standards on someone else’s culture,” Bird waxes.
“Russia will evolve at its own pace. It always has, and always will. In the meantime, calls to boycott all things Russian from vodka to nesting dolls to Olympic Games because Bill can’t hold Bob’s hand at the Olympic Village in Sochi are as dubious as they are impractical,” he concluded in his on-air remarks, the text of which appeared on the blog.
I posted the link to Twitter and hopped on the metro. When I got out, it had turned into a tweet war between Bird and the rest, myself included — the situation in Russia is dire, we pointed out, and that’s nothing to take lightly.
But the effigy burning of Bird went further. The bare-knuckles boxing match culminated in repeated calls, including from some other radio personalities in the city, to have Bird fired. It also included a blog by Adam Goldenberg, Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and former Liberal speechwriter, in Maclean’s.
“Why do we tolerate statements by sportscasters about the persecution of LGBT people in faraway places that we would instantly condemn if they were about any other group?” Goldenberg wrote. Later, he concluded, “Homophobia’s defenders have a right to their opinions, and to express them how they wish, but the rest of us are just as entitled to demand that their patrons stop paying them to do so. We should hold advertisers and station owners accountable for what they’re sponsoring.”
Homophobia? Is that what Bird’s views are?
In another version of history, one where gay rights were still but a marginal notion, would gay advocates — such as myself, or Goldenberg — be chased off the airwaves for suggesting that Russia shouldn’t be implementing such laws? Would that call-to-arms target us? Is it really free speech if you can expect pitchfork-wielding townspeople after you, and your livelihood, for each controversial opinion you express — even if it is odious?
Bird’s views may force the hair on the back of our necks to stand up, but they are not akin to taking to air with the view that Russia’s Jewish population should be rounded up. In that regard, some want us to have it both ways — they want us to be considered normalized, and accepted, yet still maintain that we are a political movement.
Rest assured, we are very much a political movement. And political movements can expect opposition. Which is why we must continue to agitate and reach out instead of trying to sublimate those who speak out.
I sent Bird an email and invited him for coffee. We met up at an ungodly early hour at the Tim Hortons in Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
I asked him why he decided to opine on the gay issue at all.
“The more I read about calls for a Sochi boycott, the more I thought, ‘Well, a boycott doesn’t do any good.’ We’ve seen that historically. Then the other angle of it, of course, is what I perceived as the automatic assumption that anyone who is not vehemently and unconditionally opposed to the Russian laws is automatically a bigot and a homophobe,” Bird said.
Bird says he’s not necessarily in favour of the Russian laws — and certainly doesn’t excuse the violence against the minorities there. He says he wanted to offer some perspective on those who did hold conservative, moralist views on homosexuality but who don’t necessarily hate gays. People like his family.
Acknowledging that it sounds like a classic “one of my best friends is gay” defence, Bird told me the story of his openly gay cousin who died of AIDS in 1986. While Bird says his family may not have been entirely onside with his cousin’s sexuality, they still loved him, in a time when that wasn’t the norm.
But those people, the ones who did not evolve on the matter as fast as society at large, are painted as homophobes.
Bird never said anything homophobic, or even anything tremendously controversial, in his post. He tells me he’s largely indifferent to most questions concerning homosexuality — he accepts it’s biological and calls initiatives like You Can Play “terrific.”
He did, however, fail to entirely condemn the legislation, like most people. That, apparently, is grounds to have him fired.
He calls it a “lynch mob mentality.”
And maybe it is.
Bird wasn’t the only one who faced the wrath of the Sochi boycott crew. During the Games, a gaggle of Canadian athletes dared to take selfies with Russia’s autocrat-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, and post them on social media. Their comments were fawning and perhaps a little undignified. But the responses were swift and exact — those selfies are homophobic.
“You’re all dead to me,” wrote one Canadian gay rights activist, epitomizing a wrong-headed, albeit well-intentioned, campaign to demonize the athletes.
All in all, Putin’s anti-gay law is odious and contrary to the fundamental right to freedom of expression. But is it not less extreme than his decades-long campaign against the Chechens that has claimed thousands of lives? And what of his considerable support for the iron grip of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych? Or, perhaps, his obstruction that is costing thousands of Syrians their lives?
How is it that when a Canadian athlete hugs Putin it is an endorsement of homophobia but not of a genocidal foreign policy? And how have we expended so much energy in attacking fellow Canadians who never signed up to be activists? Energy that could be better spent on lobbying efforts for struggles that have obtained hardly a modicum of the attention that we focused on Sochi — like in Uganda, where gay rights group GEHO is struggling for resources as the state enforces draconian new laws that threaten to elevate state-sanctioned homophobia to
government-sponsored cleansing. Similar horrors are repeating themselves in Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya and elsewhere.
How is it that selfies are the real issue?
Perhaps it’s because we feel threatened at the first sight of seeing fellow Canadians not fitting into the narrative that we’ve demanded of them.
It is a very recent phenomenon, demanding that society at large need not just stop beating us, nor just tolerate us and not even just accept us, but that they have to like us. The queens ducking batons at Stonewall didn’t give a shit who liked them. We shouldn’t, either.
Quite the opposite: we should revel in the fact that nobody can defend or propose homophobia in this country and that we have to read into a selfie or a vague on-air rant on early-morning sports radio to delineate even a whiff of anti-gay attitude.
Bird was fired, in the end, but he says it has nothing to do with his on-air pontificating.
Bill Whatcott is a social-conservative activist from Toronto.
In 2013, the Supreme Court fined him $7,500 for dropping leaflets into mailboxes in Saskatchewan. Those leaflets, the court decided, contravened the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. They further saddled him with the legal costs of his opponents. During his long run-in with the state, Whatcott has even seen the inside of a Calgary jail cell.
Whatcott’s flyers — and his almost comedic sandwich boards warning of the dangers of homosexuality — certainly bridged on hateful, and they were entirely incorrect. They warned of the horrifying sexually transmitted diseases that, he contends, are thanks to the vile homosexuals.
Civil liberties groups intervened in the Supreme Court decision, arguing that Whatcott’s freedom of speech ought to be protected.
“In their view,” wrote Justice Marshall Rothstein, delivering the unanimous decision of the court, “speech that is made in good faith and on the basis of the speaker’s religious beliefs should be given greater protection.”
But Egale Canada, the country’s premier gay rights group, argued that even someone’s deep-seated beliefs can be dangerous — they argued that Whatcott marginalized the opinions of sexual minorities.
This seems absurd when you consider that Whatcott is one man, facing a crushing majority of pro-gay Canadians. He’s no more likely to sway the population to backtrack on their overwhelming support for gay rights than a forum post on neo-Nazi website Stormfront will convert the broader population into anti-Semitic racists.
Egale made the case that people like Whatcott present a danger and their opinions could inspire others to violence against the gay community.
One of the best arguments against that idea, however, comes from an unlikely duo — noted conservative commentator Ezra Levant, channelling the ideas of former Egale head Gilles Marchildon, to the House of Commons committee on justice and human rights.
“Marchildon was asked why he didn’t want to ban anti-gay speech, even the most vicious kind. He gave three reasons why he was for freedom of speech,” Levant told the committee.
“One, he wanted to know who the bad guys were so he could isolate them and argue against them. Two, he wanted what he called a teachable moment: ‘Look, people, we just saw an act of bigotry; let’s reeducate people on why that was wrong.’ Three, which I think may be the most important, he did not want to outsource his civic duty to some bureaucracy.”
Whatcott was certainly isolated. Yet, rather than just leaving him be to espouse his ill-informed insanity in peace, they went after him. He was dragged through the courts, flogged and even put inside a jail cell. His finances were destroyed; his life, essentially, ruined.
And for what?
On winning the fight
The absurdity of it all is that we’ve won.
Not every member of the queer community. Far from it. And hardly all of our brothers, sisters and fellow queer people worldwide have experienced the same victory that we have.
But if we’re talking about middle-class white gay men in Canada? Hell, we arguably have it better than the average straight guy. That’s not a comfortable, or perhaps even conceivable, thought for a population so well trained in cultural guerrilla warfare.
Violence still occurs and discrimination still happens, but we don’t solve that by rooting out every homophobe and destroying them.
Xtra knows better than anyone. On Jan 5, 1978, charges were brought against the paper’s predecessor, The Body Politic, and its parent company, Pink Triangle Press, for publishing “immoral, indecent and scurrilous material.”
Those charges stiffened the editorial backbone of the publisher. “They reinforced our opposition to state censorship as a form of social control — even control of material that might be controversial within our own communities,” Pink Triangle Press’s website reads.
It was an uphill battle from then on. You can find online a rather unnerving list of attacks on this paper by the Toronto Sun, which, in retrospect, verge on the comically absurd.
But the spirit of the paper, which would eventually become Xtra, survived. Its position is cemented as an utterly normal, mainstream publication. And it has maintained an editorial position that emphatically refuses to gang up on the little guy — even if that little guy doesn’t fit into the queer-friendly line that it commits to.
At the end of the day, where does it end? Do we go after every person who actively works against us — like Diane Watts and REAL Women? Do we destroy every funder of anti-gay movements — like Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich? Do we attack everyone who speaks out or makes a one-off comment — like Ted Bird or reality-TV bachelor Juan Pablo?
Where does it end?
Institutionalized homophobia, transphobia, racism or discrimination should always be fought. But teasing out the personal convictions of anyone and using it as a basis to take them out? That’s exactly what we experienced, and we know how oppressive it feels.
The queer community won its rights — and will continue to win its rights — by engaging the debate and winning. We won’t cement those rights in place by turning around and taking shots at those who haven’t come around to seeing us as normal, yet.
And we don’t reduce violence by engaging the state to attack our enemies. We do the opposite.
Gay rights are not a lucky break brought about by fooling the populace at large. Gay rights are not a fragile peace that can be broken by a man in a sandwich board with a strongly worded leaflet. Gay rights are the product of decades of struggle, and if you think a few holdouts are going to threaten that, you have another think coming, sister.
If you want to stand up for closeted youth or marginalized queer populations or our oppressed cohorts overseas, do it not by demonizing the few who don’t like us, but by holding up the millions who do.
I remember when, back home in Cape Breton, we held our first Pride parade. There was initially some nail-biting over the moral preening of a half-dozen anti-gay protesters assembled, but it was otherwise uneventful. In the years that followed, as the area’s small gay community became an integral part of the town, the small crowd dissipated to one man.
The local paper described him as “dressed neatly and all alone.”
Pride president Peter Steele spoke to the Cape Breton Post about that neatly dressed man: “We never mind him being there. Every time he’s there, we all make it a point to wave and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’“
We are the majority, now, and we should take a lesson from our experience as the vocal minority.
We should wave and say, “Hi, how are you?”