Rise of the Rainbow Hawks: How Conservatives and Canada's Gay-Rights Activists Made Common Cause
Plenty of Westerners have expressed disgust at Russia’s new law criminalizing the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” But few statesmen have put the issue in terms quite as blunt as has Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird. “This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians,” he told an interviewer earlier this summer. “It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence.” Mr. Baird also revealed that Canadian officials have personally pressed the issue with their Russian counterparts on no fewer than eight occasions.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn’t just come around to gay rights: He has made the issue a centrepiece of Canada’s foreign policy. His government has fiercely rebuked draconian anti-gay laws in Africa, to the point of infuriating the social-conservative group REAL Women of Canada, which this month publicly denounced Mr. Baird for using his position “to further his own perspective on homosexuality.” The Conservative government has offered protection to persecuted gays in Iran and worked diplomatic channels to convince Russia to scotch plans to ban foreign adoptions by gay couples.
And in an odd twist, the Tories’ hard-line stance against homophobic governments overseas has boomeranged back to powerfully influence the mainstream conservative view of homosexuality here in Canada — a rare example of a foreign-policy posture setting the agenda on an otherwise purely domestic social issue. In the last two decades, support for gay rights in Canada has advanced, particularly compared to historic fights for minority rights, with breathtaking speed, and much of it happening under a Conservative government.
As a result, the Conservatives of 2013 would surely be unrecognizable to the conservative politicians of the 1990s. The Reform party, where Mr. Harper began his political life, voted against the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Human Rights Act. Reform founder Preston Manning described homosexuality as “destructive to the individual, and in the long run, society.” Stockwell Day dismissed it as a “lifestyle choice.” In 1999, a Calgary Reform MP told the House of Commons that “[traditional] marriage provides a healthy biological design for procreation. Other types of relationships are technically incomplete.” Even as recently as 2004, less than a decade ago, the preservation of marriage as the union of one man and one woman was a central plank of Stephen Harper’s election platform, and a rallying point for his base.
What changed? According to Laurie Aron, formerly the National Director of Canadians for Equal Marriage, a gay-marriage advocacy group, it was a simple matter of cold, hard cost-benefit analysis.
“When we started the equal marriage challenges in the courts in 2001, public opinion was slightly against us,” he says. “But by the time Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, the legal context and popular opinion had changed tremendously — Mr. Harper knew he’d have to use the notwithstanding clause [of the Charter of Rights] to reverse equal marriage, which Canadians would oppose…. That’s why Mr. Harper put a designed-to-fail motion to reopen the issue to Parliament. Once that lost, he immediately stated he considered the matter to be settled.”
But Jaime Watt, a political strategist who helped Mike Harris’ Ontario Progressive Conservatives win two provincial elections, believes there is more to the shift than mere political utilitarianism. The seeds of the Harper government’s current gay-supportive policy, he argues, were planted in 1994, after the failure of Ontario’s Bill 167, which would have granted some of the rights associated with marriage to same-sex couples.
“At the time, there were a bunch of us here in Toronto — strategists, lawyers and other professionals — who wanted equality, and we were tired of leaving the issue to the activist left,” he told me. “We started to convince people that this was an issue of Canadian values, that the lives of gay and lesbian people involve more than just what they do with their genitals — that they go to work, take care of children, that they are sons and daughters who care for aging parents. As strategists, we started doing for our [gay] community what we’d been doing for our clients.”
The second big factor Mr. Watt points to is that, in the 1990s, many older gay men and women started coming out of the closet — which had a strong influence on the attitudes of their straight peers: “If you go through life without knowing anyone who is gay, it’s easy to be homophobic. When it’s a friend or family member, not as much.”
Mitchel Raphael, who formerly edited Toronto-based gay magazine fab and reported on the Parliament Hill social circuit for Maclean’s, says that this sort of shift in attitude was apparent all over the federal Conservative party during their first few years in government. “A lot of these people who were elected as rookie MPs, they came from areas of the country where they might have never met a gay person, or very few,” he says. “Then, suddenly, you’re in Ottawa, and gay people are everywhere — and so your attitude changes.”
“In the Conservative party, gay staffers were especially prominent, because often it’s the young men, the ones without kids, who tend to work the longest hours that [this PMO] demands,” Mr. Raphael adds. “It went up to the top: There was a group of gay men who would arrive to set up before the Prime Minister’s events — the ‘beauty brigade,’ I’d call them. In 2012, when Mitt Romney fired a worker after Republicans were complaining that he was gay, there were all sorts of jokes about how if Harper had to fire every gay aide he had, half his workforce would be gone.”
One would think that Canadian gay activists would have little in common with the right-leaning culture warriors who still have a prominent place within the Conservative party. But, in the post-9/11 world, the two groups have found common ground. In Canada, especially, the campaign in Afghanistan was not seen merely as part of the war against terrorism. It was also seen as a war against the anti-Western, anti-Semitic, murderously misogynistic and, yes, anti-gay hatred promoted by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and hardcore Islamists more generally. The most hawkish War on Terror intellectuals, largely conservatives, grasped quickly that standing for Western liberal values — which inevitably included feminism and gay acceptance — was a most effective way to win support from the left and right alike for the fight against fundamentalism.
“Recent years have brought into sharp relief the Western conception of human rights and the very different conception of human rights in other countries,” says Jonathan Tobin, the online editor for Commentary, a deeply conservative, strongly pro-Israel American magazine that, over the last year, also has featured some writers who’ve marked out a progressive path on gay rights. “And in some cases, this has caused conservatives to revisit their views on homosexuality back at home.”
Supporters of Israel, in particular, often appeal to liberal critics by emphasizing the Jewish state’s especially tolerant attitude toward gays, as compared to the virulent homophobia prevalent in Palestinian and other Arab cultures. And the Israeli government itself has shrewdly branded itself as “an international gay vacation destination” — a successful marketing ploy that has given fits to anti-Israeli activists.
In a 2013 essay entitled Israel and the Pink Dollar: Deconstructing the settler homonationalist discourse embedded in Israeli-LGBT-Propaganda films represented by ‘The Invisible Men, for instance, Queen’s University student Jeffrey Ingold complains that “the U.S. government made supporting the war on terror synonymous with ‘liberating’ homosexuals in the backwards Middle East.” In the same breath, he denounces the tactic of Israeli “pinkwashing,” which he describes as “a potent method of justifying the Israeli occupation of Palestine by framing Palestinians as barbaric, homophobic and uncivilized. Homosexual acceptance has become the symbol of civilizational aptitude.”
Indeed, because the leftist approach has fallen into the sort of jargony identity politics epitomized by Mr. Ingold’s essay, some leftists are even pointing to the conservative approach to protecting gay rights as a superior model. “What happened on the left in recent years is that the emancipation of gay people degenerated into a really bizarre identity-politics racket,” says Terry Glavin, a Canadian socialist writer who has been trying, for years, to drag Canadian public opinion into more constructive and interventionist engagement with parts of the world that can benefit from Western values, such as Afghanistan.
Some left-wingers may refuse to acknowledge the Conservatives’ extraordinarily potent defence of gay rights: Ashley Martyn, identified last week in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail as the social media manager for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, suggested that the Prime Minister “secretly believes that gay people are second-class citizens.” But Mr. Glavin considers such people blind to the work being done in Ottawa that is concretely advancing gay rights worldwide. “When you want to get something done these days, you turn to a guy like Jason Kenney,” the Multiculturalism Minister, he says. “We are running an underground railroad from gay communities in Iran and Iraq into Canada. Is this not something to be immensely proud of?” he says.
Mr. Glavin here refers to another example of the odd-couple synthesis between terror hawks and gay rights activists, when, in 2009, Mr. Kenney, then minister for immigration and citizenship, declared that Canada would be taking special measures to admit gay Iranians as refugees. “I can’t imagine more legitimate grounds for protection than folks who are facing potential execution in Iran for their sexuality,” he told the Toronto Star. “These are people who are clearly in need of protection, and Canada has already received a number of gay and lesbian Iranian refugee claimants.”
The move allowed the Conservative government to poke a stick in Iran’s eye, and help a genuinely in-need refugee constituency, all at one blow. As a bonus, such steps help create a bulwark against radicalism in our immigrant population. “When you’re dealing with a country like Iran, gay asylum seekers are exactly the ones you want,” says Mr. Raphael. “In general, these are precisely the people who you can guarantee don’t support the Iranian regime back home. They’re going to bring in a more secular, moderate perspective.”
Mr. Kenney’s 2009 move on Iranian gay refugees has become a template for Canada’s policy toward other nations. In 2010, Mr. Harper became a hero to African gay activists in Uganda when he denounced ludicrously harsh anti-gay legislation in Uganda during a one-on-one meeting with that country’s president. And last week, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced that Canada will look favourably on gay asylum-seekers trying to get out of homophobic Russia.
“Our government wants [our] voice to be heard, for it to be clear, and for it to be unambiguously free of moral relativism,” is how Mr. Baird describes Canada’s stance in this area. “We believe what’s right is right. And what’s wrong is wrong.”
The irony is that just two decades ago, Canadian conservatives used this very same lexicon of moral absolutism to justify the rejection of gay equality rights. Gay activists in Russia, the Middle East and Africa can only hope that attitudes in their own countries transform as quickly.
Jonathan Kay | August 23, 2013 | Last Updated: Jan 25 7:46 PM ET