Toronto
3 min

Refute haters, don’t gag them

If you’re looking to remind Egale Canada’s new executive director, Helen Kennedy, of her organization’s biggest fuckup of 2005, it’s a no-brainer. No, not Egale’s refusal to censor a hateful preacher.

That was a brave moment for Egale.

At the time, Egale recognized that Stephen Boissoin, the hate-spewing Red Deer pastor, should not be muzzled. Egale was following a core principle of our community’s struggle for freedom, namely that we do not make progress by bullying: not by shutting people up, not by refusing their newspaper ads, not by suing them. And no, not by taking them to human rights tribunals either.

We debate them. We refute them. We speak louder and prouder than ever. We picket in front of their churches. We organize boycotts.

In short, we fight speech with speech.

I firmly believe that gay rights will win out in the arena of public opinion. Mostly, they already have. When I hear censor-happy gays saying, Make the bigots be quiet, I have to think to myself, Are you really so unsure about the value of your arguments that you think they don’t bear scrutiny?

And when someone suggests that another person’s words caused others to act violently, it raises the question: In that equation, what happens to people’s capacity to make decisions thoughtfully and based on their own beliefs and subsequently to act on them? Who’s to blame for the fagbashing that happened two weeks later in Red Deer? The fagbashers.

Is the preacher who helped normalize the bashers’ views a wanker? Hell, yes. But how do we fight that? With censorship?

Um, can I point out the contradiction? Historically, gays have relied on freedom of expression to make our case — big time — and we still do.

Of course, the most infamous muzzling of gays in a Canadian context is The Body Politic’s (Xtra’s predessor) 10-year legal battle to overcome obscenity charges laid against the organization’s staff and publishers.

Whether it’s Uptown newspaper censoring Cruiseline’s ads in Winnipeg or city hall contemplating a ban on Capital Xtra in its community centres in Ottawa or — and this is the big scary one — the ongoing seizure of gay bookstores’ imports at the Canadian border: we are still vulnerable to censorship. We can’t afford to be hypocrites on this one.

That’s why the adjacent column by Rob Salerno on this matter is not just wrong, but also wrong-headed.

Salerno attacks Egale Canada for a 2005 decision by its board. Egale decided not to support University Of Calgary professor Darren Lund, who named Red Deer preacher, Stephen Boissoin, in a human rights complaint. Boissoin’s comments were hateful, Salerno alleged, and he shouldn’t be allowed to say or publish hateful things

Salerno’s column misses the real point. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean a damn if you only extend its reach as far as opinions you agree with. It’s about the right of your enemies to say what they believe as much as it’s about your right to do so. It is contemptible speech that’s most marginalized and therefore most in need of protecting.

We were once on the receiving end of that machine — we were saying the things that most people found contemptible. Now that we’re on the other side of that scale, we should at least have the grace to accord our enemies the same freedoms we ourselves insist on.

Instead, we should remind Egale’s Kennedy about Bill C-2, a federal government bill opposed by civil libertarians, arts groups and queers at the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO). The bill was widely seen as the precursor to 2007’s legislation to raise the age of sexual consent.

Queer activists greeted the bill with incendiary submissions to Parliament’s justice committee. CLGRO and the Sex Laws Committee argued that the ability of queer artists and journalists to depict coming out stories and sexual abuse would be curtailed if the law was passed. They also warned that teenagers would bear the brunt of the extra government intervention in their sex lives. And since we all know sex laws are disproportionately applied to gays, it’s clear who would be most isolated by the law: our young gay brothers and sisters.

With C-2, Egale said it wasn’t going to fight it. Then it said it would. It wrote a brief for the committee, but never submitted it. Yeah, that was the truly, definitively shameful moment in the history of Egale.

Their taking an anti-censorship position on the preacher’s hateful words? That should be commended.