3 min

The Harper government’s ‘commitment’ to gay rights

In the past few days, there has been some level of attention paid to the fact that the Conservative government has been advocating on behalf of gay rights in places like Uganda, while at the same time trying to put limits on things like same-sex divorce in Canada.
Embassy magazine’s look at the issues notes that the Harper government’s support is at the lowest-common-denominator level (stop killing gays or throwing them in jail). Meanwhile, Matt Gurney at the National Post took that piece and went so far as to chastise the people who still say the government has a homophobic hidden agenda, but with all these wonderful things the Harper government is doing for gays, can’t we lay that to rest?
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, I don’t believe Harper is homophobic, nor the people immediately around him. It’s not just that John Baird is one of his most loyal ministers, or that Harper has a lot of time for out lesbian Senator Nancy Ruth, or that his wife, Laureen, loves gay men. These things are all true, and according to Nancy Ruth, Harper believes simply that sexuality is a private matter and leaves it at that. So be it.
But while Gurney cites things like the government’s declaration that same-sex marriage will remain the law of the land, the pledge to help more queer refugees, or going to bat for decriminalizing homosexuality in the Commonwealth, Gurney doesn’t look at the substance of these moves.
Yes, same-sex marriage remains the law of the land, so long as you were married in Canada and meet the residency requirements for divorce, and Gurney ignores the fact that Harper has opened up a legal can of worms when it comes to the recognition of all marriages abroad.
Moves to restrict the kinds of refugees accepted to only those recognized by states or the UNHCR marginalizes a large number of other queer refugees, primarily from Africa. As well, Jason Kenney’s much-touted pilot program with the Rainbow Refugee Committee on funds for private sponsorship is more of a back-patting exercise. It looks like it’s doing more than it is, given that groups like Rainbow Refugee have a more urgent need for capacity building, something these funds cannot be used for.
And then there’s the promotion of gay rights abroad. It’s one thing to say to the president of Uganda that he needs to stop the bill that would further criminalize queers in his country, but it’s quite another to actually give aid dollars to queer rights groups in those countries. And while Gurney says that this is a “walk before you run” approach to rights, it doesn’t acknowledge that “stop killing gays” is a far cry from a more profound message that queer rights are human rights.
It also ignores the “love the sinner, hate the sin” connotations of the message. Don’t kill the gays, but don’t promote their full equality either. That’s certainly a message that resonates with the evangelical base that does still exist within the Conservative party and that can’t be dismissed as a “hidden agenda.”
Above all, Gurney’s dismissal of criticisms of Harper’s record on queer rights ignores the fact that there’s a lot more to those rights than same-sex marriage. There is also a wide gap between having rights on paper and being able to enjoy them substantively.
Sure we have marriage equality in Canada, but we’re still seeing homophobic and transphobic violence, the lack of access to services – most especially in the health sector – and there still exists a huge urban-rural divide when it comes to queers in this country. It’s easy for city dwellers, both gay and straight, to think that the accepting environment they know extends across the country. It doesn’t.
There are still problems for queer communities in this country that Harper’s government has done nothing about. The majority of the Conservative caucus, including Harper himself, voted against the bill to extend human rights protections to trans people. They say that bullying is an issue but won’t offer any solutions. AIDS service organizations are starved for funds. They steadfastly refused to equalize the age of consent in this country.
Relying on the fact that they haven’t repealed equal marriage, their back-patting on refugees and their bare minimum advocacy abroad starts to look more like a pinkwashing job to say, “See! We’re totally not homophobic!” Until you scratch beneath the surface.
There may not in fact be a homophobic hidden agenda, but this government still has a long way to go before it can claim that it’s actually doing something substantive for the queer community, both at home and abroad.