When a group of gay Conservatives marched under the Tory banner in last year’s Toronto Pride parade, the crowd response was less than welcoming.
“Are you fucking crazy?” one woman yelled after them.
Similar jeers have met gay Tories and their gay-friendly colleagues in previous Pride parades.
“We got booed and yelled at the entire way down the route,” says a young gay staffer for a prominent Ontario Tory. He asked Xtra to not use his name in this story for fear that his own opinions might be perceived as his boss’s.
The term “gay Conservative” is often seen as an oxymoron, particularly these days with Conservative leader Stephen Harper leading the charge against same-sex marriage. What makes queers stick with a party where gay and lesbian issues are seen as unimportant, if not repugnant?
It was a challenge finding Conservatives who would talk about it. I couldn’t find any queer Tory women who would go on the record. Of the five men who talked, two of them asked to remain anonymous, citing professional reasons. It’s clear that many gay Conservatives don’t like wearing their sexuality on their sleeves. And perhaps among other queers, they don’t like wearing their party affiliation on their sleeves, either.
The Conservative Party seems to have less gay blood now than it did before its 2003 merger with the Alliance Party, formerly the Reform Party. The Reform and Alliance brands have always been associated with social conservatism, so the merger saw people like Scott Brison, the openly gay man who had ran for the federal Tory leadership, flee to the Liberals. (Brison got a cabinet position out of it.) The gay men and lesbians now in the party hail mostly from the Progressive Conservative side of the merger, while the caucus is dominated by former Alliance members.
It’s the basics of fiscal Conservative ideology – free markets, low taxes, a low level of state interference in citizens’ lives – that makes them stay in the party, hoping to win over their socially conservative colleagues.
“Personally, I prefer ‘moderate Conservative,'” says Gary Mitchell, an openly gay man who ran and lost as a candidate for the federal Tories in Vancouver Centre last June, and is still active in the party.
“Sexuality has nothing to do with politics,” says Mitchell, who, like all the queer Conservatives I talked to, supports same-sex marriage rights. “There are thousands of moderate Conservatives who want an option. I don’t believe the government should overtax us and then waste millions on bureaucracy.”
Dave Forestell, an openly gay 24-year-old law student at the University Of Western Ontario and an active Tory, sees no contradiction between his sexuality and his political affiliation.
“I believe in fiscal responsibility. I believe in personal responsibility. I’ve always believed that people should be able to govern their own lives,” says Forestell, who served as Ontario Youth President for the Progressive Conservatives from 2000 to 2002.
“It’s difficult because your friends ask you, ‘How can you keep supporting this party?’ You point to the genuinely good people who are supportive [of gay rights] in the party,” says Forestell.
Others are more skeptical.
“This is not the party of [former prime ministers Brian] Mulroney or Kim Campbell. It’s dominated by a different kind of ideological Conservative,” says Thomas O’Shaughnessy, who’s been active in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party for years and says he won’t lift a finger to help out the federal Tories anytime soon.
“This is not a party that represents my values anymore. I’m not prepared to defend the anti-equality messages, the absent social agenda,” says O’Shaughnessy.
Recently Harper called same-sex marriage, “a threat to a genuinely multicultural country.” Last week during the House Of Commons debates about Bill C-38, the proposed Civil Marriage Act, Harper called it the government’s “latest fad.” Harper even took out ads in ethnic community news-papers across the country bragging about his party’s opposition to same-sex marriage, a position, which gay Tories are quick to mention, has not been formally endorsed by the party membership. Federal Conservatives don’t meet for their first post-merger policy convention until this month, Thu, Mar 17 to 19.
“[Harper]’s circumvented the policy process,” says Forestell. “He’s spoken in direct contravention of policy, which says it’s a free vote.”
Forestell and Mitchell say they will join other gay Tories and party moderates at the Montreal conference to challenge the leader’s position on same-sex marriage.
“My aim was never to battle Stephen Harper. This is just an issue he’s not on the right side of,” says Mitchell. “There are other people in the party jumping onboard against the leader because it’s wrong, due to the issue and due to strategy.”
Harper is now on record saying that a Conservative government led by him may re-visit the issue, even if it’s passed in this Parliament. This is simply foolish, says Forestell.
“Every time we’ve lost when we’ve fought on these [social conservative] issues,” says Forestell. “There’s a significant sense of frustration.”
Harper and his advisers may have been emboldened by the US presidential election in November which saw Republican George W Bush reelected on a platform which included opposition to same-sex marriage. But those tactics won’t fly in Canada, says Forestell.
“I don’t see why Stephen Harper is banking on Canada becoming less tolerant. It’s just a fact of history that people generally become more tolerant,” says Forestell, who also served as national youth chair for Belinda Stronach’s leadership bid against Harper last year.
Stronach, who lost the leadership but won her Newmarket-Aurora riding in last June’s election, is one of four Conservative MPs to publicly support same-sex marriage. The other three are Jim Prentice from Calgary, James Moore from Vancouver and Gerald Keddy from Nova Scotia.
The Montreal convention could put Harper’s leadership on the line. In 1983, federal Tory leader Joe Clark stepped down and called a leadership convention when he received only 67 percent support from party delegates at a similar convention. If Harper is trying to dissuade moderates from showing up to challenge his leadership, it may be working.
“I take my hat off to others who continue to stay and fight, but unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel as hopeful or positive. That’s why I’m not going to Montreal,” says O’Shaughnessy, who says he’ll remain active provincially.
The debate over same-sex marriage in the Conservative Party is, like in the rest of Canada, mostly generational, says the young gay staffer. For him, it’s a matter of time before the party comes around.
“I think a lot of young Conservatives, gay and straight, have a lot of frustration on this issue. Many young Conservatives see that once the changing of the guard happens, this issue will be history.”
When Forestell came out of the closet in his second year as Ontario PC Party youth president in 2001, the reaction he received was surprising.
“Most [straight Tories] were very supportive of me personally. Whether or not they agreed with me on same-sex marriage, it was never an issue. Today there are a lot of gay PC youth who are comfortable being out now.”
Gay Tories have their place in the struggle for queer equality, says a former senior Ontario Tory advisor. Though he says he’s been out of the closet in the party since 1990, he asked Xtra not to use his name in this story.
“We need lawyers, we need protesters and we need people in the corridors of power,” he says. “We need people on the inside in order to make progress.
“Most of the bigots are also cowards. If you’re out and you’re there in the room, just by inserting yourself in the process, that has a huge impact,” he says, calling himself “an incrementalist.”
“Gone are the days of Stonewall. We are in an era that requires smart, strategic lobbying,” says the younger Tory staffer.
A group of gay Conservatives got together in 2004 to form a national organization called Blue Pride to advocate both inside and outside the party for lesbian and gay equality. Their inaugural meeting in Toronto drew about 20 people, plus others from across the country by speakerphone.
“That inside world in politics can be very painful to stay in. Gay Conservatives need that support. Blue Pride is for people who don’t want to abandon the party,” says the senior advisor.
The group has plans for the Montreal convention. Some members who aren’t attending are contributing an amount equal to the delegation fee to the lobby group Canadians For Equal Marriage.
Mitchell says he’s not going to give up his party… yet.
“I’m not finished here. I’m gonna keep fighting. I will probably run again when I see more issues in a platform that supports stronger urban centres. I hope it’s for the Conservative Party,” adds Mitchell.