Rob Ford and Tim Hudak take note: When it comes to human rights and equality, symbolic gestures from leaders are important.
Yesterday, the President of the United States came out on national television and said that he’s in favour of legally recognizing same-sex marriages. If you travel in the circles I travel in, that seems like something that should be uncontroversial—like coming out in favour of allowing women to hold management jobs or allowing Protestants and Catholics to marry each other. It’s the kind of thing that might have seemed controversial to your grandparents, but really, as even this FOX news anchor says: Welcome to the 21st century.
But Obama’s assertion of support is not another ho-hum moment—it’s a watershed moment in a struggle for basic human equality in the Unites States (and, by extension, around the world). Two days ago, the state of North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, on the same day beloved children’s author Maurice Sendak died never having had his 50-year relationship to a man he loved considered worthy of recognition. Sendak told us of how his parents never knew of the most significant relationship in his life, because he was too ashamed to tell them.
In the eyes of society, Sendak knew, somehow the revolving matrimonial door at Rush Limbaugh’s house or the momentary prank nuptials of Britney Spears are considered sacred, while the lifelong partnership based on love and commitment shared by Sendak and his partner was beneath official notice. Barack Obama himself had never openly endorsed equality in marriage for all Americans before yesterday—a failure that allowed the culture of bullying, shame, and marginalization to carry the continued symbolic endorsement of the world’s most powerful man.
So when Obama looked into all our yellow eyes without blinking once and said that the basic human right of equality before the law should naturally extend to gay and lesbian people, it was kind of a big deal.
Its biggest effect is symbolic, granted. Marriage laws in the United States, as Obama has noted, are a matter of state jurisdiction and always have been (except for the ridiculous and unconstitutional Defence of Marriage Act, which Obama instructed his Department of Justice to stop defending last year). But symbolism is important to the evolution of the culture. Andrew Sullivan, who has been collecting the stirring reactions of his readers and other bloggers on his own site, writes:
So let me simply say: I think of all the gay kids out there who now know they have their president on their side. I think of Maurice Sendak, who just died, whose decades-long relationship was never given the respect it deserved. I think of the centuries and decades in which gay people found it impossible to believe that marriage and inclusion in their own families was possible for them, so crushed were they by the weight of social and religious pressure. I think of all those in the plague years shut out of hospital rooms, thrown out of apartments, written out of wills, treated like human garbage because they loved another human being. I think of Frank Kameny. I think of the gay parents who now feel their president is behind their sacrifices and their love for their children.
Sullivan goes on to note that this may well turn out to be a political advantage for Obama in the coming election, given that large majorities of Democrats and independents now support same-sex marriage. Less than a decade ago, the Republican party placed anti-same-sex marriage resolutions on ballots to bring the haters who form their base out to the polls in order to help George W. Bush get elected. Now, many think it’s possible that Obama is employing the same wedge in the other direction—a firm stand on marriage equality will bring out his own base and help him win. That’s quite an evolution in less than a decade.
There’s that word again: evolution. Obama called his own change of mind on the subject an “evolution,” and it’s a supremely appropriate term. It suggests a natural, unstoppable form of logical change that is both incremental and progressive. It’s a term that describes how many of us feel about how our own minds have changed in the past three or four decades as we slowly woke up to the ways in which we were participants in a horrible system of bigotry. Looking back on the casual fag jokes that were a natural part of my own repertoire in high school—and those of my friends and teachers—is like gazing upon a version of myself who lacks an opposable thumb. Imagining the Canada of less than 10 years ago, in which gay and lesbian people still could not marry, is like seeing our society before the discovery of fire. Our mental equipment was primitive. I’ve evolved. We’ve evolved. Or at least, we’re evolving. We continue to evolve.
Looking at the United States from here in Canada—from here in Toronto, where the first official wedding ceremony between a same-sex couple in North America was conducted at City Hall in 2003—there’s a temptation to be smug and condescending in our view of what’s unfolding in the US. But we have our own evolution to tend to.
This week, at Queen’s Park, the official opposition led by Tim Hudak is opposing legislation that would require schools to allow students to form specific anti-homophobia groups, (although, distressingly it would not require schools to allow them to be called Gay-Straight Alliances). [*] It’s legislation that addresses the persistent existence of bullying of gay, lesbian, and otherwise queer students; legislation prompted by the official, entrenched intolerance of some of our major public school boards. Hudak and his Progressive Conservative party ran in the last election partly on firing up fears about gay teaching in schools—spreading lies about the curriculum in order to pander to the fears of bigots. It’s a positioning of intolerance that has started to divide the party’s own caucus, and may have played a role, according to some reports, in the defection of one member so far. Hudak is on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history. It’s worth remembering, maybe, that 25 years ago, even gay members of the provincial legislature opposed same-sex marriage. We’ve evolved, but need to evolve more.
At City Hall, home to that symbolically important first same-sex marriage, we have a mayor who has said that he also opposes same-sex marriage, although he clarified—or muddied—interpretations of that stance by saying, “I support traditional marriage, I always have, but if people want, to each their own. I’m not worried about what people do in their private life, I look out for taxpayers’ money and to each his own when it comes to what happens behind closed doors.” He has, in the past, said that gay people and needle users are the only ones who get AIDS, consistently opposed funding for HIV prevention on the grounds that it’s just a gays-and-drug-addicts issue, expressed his bafflement at transexuality, and otherwise indicated he’s no friend of gay Torontonians.
This week, as it was at this time last year, the big question for Rob Ford is whether he’ll acknowledge the equality of gay and lesbian Torontonians by participating in some Pride Week event. Pride is among the largest street festivals and tourist events in Toronto, and remains a celebration of diversity and respect for the equality and humanity of all citizens in a world where that equality cannot be taken for granted. Last year, Ford snubbed the festival, apparently purposely. His former communications chief, Adrienne Batra, has explained that she thinks he stays away from Pride events not because he himself is homophobic, but because he’s calculated that his supporters are homophobic. Whatever. (That may be an even more offensive interpretation of his motives: If he has yet to evolve out of fear and ignorance, that makes him woefully, unacceptably misguided, but capable of growing as so many others have. If he believes in equality but has cynically decided to pretend he doesn’t in order to curry favour with people he knows to be ignorant bigots, that’s a whole other kettle of fishiness.)
Whatever his motives, Ford has already announced he will skip the Pride parade, the festival’s main event. And he has further indicated that he will not attend a flag raising—unaffiliated with Pride—to symbolically oppose homophobia that takes place only a few metres from his office. That’s an event organized by straight people: the Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gay people. It will be attended by Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be a low-key affair, dedicated to soberly wishing for an end to discrimination and hatred. But Ford, the mayor of Toronto will not attend. He is a man who will famously go to the houses of thousands of citizens to let them show him potholes. He could send city staff to do that work, but he clearly thinks it’s symbolically important for voters to see that the mayor understands them and is fighting for them. Unless they are gay voters.
Rob Ford’s participation in Pride and the issue of what students are allowed to call Gay-Straight Alliance anti-bullying groups: These are both purely symbolic issues. Ford and Hudak clearly believe it’s symbolically important to withhold support for equality, to send a signal to some of their supporters. That’s both depressing and enraging.
The stunningly fast embrace of gay rights by mainstream society in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere over the past 20 years is a clear progression, even if it always hasn’t been an uncontroversial one. Ford and Hudak and the US Republicans are clearly on the wrong side of these issues and the wrong side of history. They will be remembered for their stubborn stands as the last gasps of a hatefulness that is nearing extinction. Or they could, if they change their stance as Obama has, be remembered and acknowledged as people who evolved personally and helped symbolically usher in our cultural transition to fuller equality.
It is easy for some of us, secure in our identity, our acceptance by society, and our relationships, to look happily at this slow cultural evolution—to pat ourselves on the back about our enlightenment and reassure ourselves that things are getting better, and will continue to get better. But being on the right side of history doesn’t stop high school kids from committing suicide after being bullied. Being on the right side of history didn’t stop a cultural giant who stood as tall as Sendak from hiding his life from his own parents until they died. Being on the right side of history is of little solace to a young man or woman who still feels that society considers them flawed, sinful, disordered, and less than fully human.
Symbolic gestures can actually help, though. Because cultural change is but a series of symbolic gestures that signal acceptance or lack of acceptance, tolerance or intolerance. When the president of the United States will not recognize a same-sex marriage, it says something to all Americans about the state of the society and the boundaries of decent opinion. When he does the opposite, very publicly, it signals to both the bullies and the bullied that the ground is shifting. Here at home, the symbolic stances, resolutions, and appearances of our own leaders act in the same way.
Speaking of symbolically important leaders, Brian Burke is a macho man of the old school, but he became a friend of the gay community and a vocal supporter of full equality for gay and lesbian people inside the world of hockey and elsewhere because his son, Brendan, was gay—and was openly gay in a hockey culture where being openly gay was unheard of.
Last year, at the PFLAG flag raising at City Hall, Burke spoke to those in attendance near the flag pole outside. “Imagine being afraid to go to school, imagine being afraid to step on a school bus, imagine being afraid to walk the halls,” Burke said.
Mayor Rob Ford was not in attendance. He was, it later appeared, conducting an interview with a sports-radio station a few hundred feet away inside his office. “We’ve got a long way to go. We need allies,” Burke said. ”Shame on the people that didn’t show up. Shame on you.”
CORRECTION, May 11, 2012: Originally, I had this sentence saying that the bill would require schools to allow students to call the groups Gay-Straight Alliances if they wanted to. Indefatigable activist Justin Stayshyn suggested I look closer. My reading of the bill’s language requiring schools to support students in forming groups “including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name” was that schools would have to accept that name or another according to what students wanted to form. This is incorrect. Paris Meilleur, who works in Education Minister Laurel Broten’s office, clarified by phone that the clause actually means the opposite—that the legislation requires schools to allow students to form specific, single-issue anti-homophobia and anti-gender discrimination groups, but that schools would be allowed to insist they not be named “Gay-Straight Alliances.” She explained that the government wants to ensure support groups specifically for gay and lesbian students would be required, but says the provincial government will not be in the business of legislating what those groups are called. I asked her specifically if this meant a Catholic school could forbid the use of the term “Gay-Straight Alliance” and insist on some other name, and she said “that’s correct.” Since the whole controversy stems from the Catholic School Board’s insistence that groups promoting tolerance and respect cannot use the words “gay” or promote the view that homosexuality is anything but disordered, this raises some concerns about how the bill might be implemented in practice. I regret the error—not being a lawyer, I certainly should have sought confirmation of my interpretation of that clause before I published. (This is especially evident since I interpreted it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.) And I’m thankful to Justin Stayshyn for pointing out the error. [back]