Why I’m Trying to Change the Conservative Party

I am, by nature, a very private person. I enjoy solitude and I’m a bit anti-social. Like actress Greta Garbo once said, “I want to be alone.” Less than a year ago I was enjoying my retirement, sitting on my front porch out in the country, yelling at kids to get off my lawn. Now I’m, as one social conservative website described me recently, “a gay activist” and a “homosexualist agitator”. I’m being interviewed by reporters from the national media and schlepping up to Parliament Hill to lobby MPs. How did this all happen?

Back in the fall of 2015 I replied to an email from LGBTory Canada looking for volunteers to write for their website. I used to write a blog on gay libertarian issues and was looking for a new creative outlet, so I responded and met some of them for a beer in Toronto. Six months or so later and now we’re off to the convention in Vancouver, pushing to change the Conservative Party’s policy on same-sex marriage. 

When we got together back then and started to discuss our ideas for the direction of LGBTory’s political advocacy, it became apparent that we all shared a common grievance. We generally agreed with the Conservative Party’s stance on the economy, on taxes, on foreign policy, on the relative roles of the individual and the state. But one thing was a constant, nagging irritant for all of us: Section 70 of the party’s Policy Declaration.

Section 70 states that the Conservative party supports legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. This clause was inserted into the Policy Declaration in 2005 when the country was in the throes of an emotional debate on the issue. It is still official party policy ten years later, despite two votes in Parliament supporting marriage equality backed up by court decisions in a number of provinces and in the Supreme Court of Canada.

 All of us can tell stories about people who have accused us of hypocrisy for continuing to support the Conservative Party because of this policy. “How can you, as a gay man, be a member of a party that believes you’re a second-class citizen?” goes the typical argument. I’ve been asked that question countless times. I broke up with a partner once over the issue. No amount of pointing out that, during almost ten years in power, the party made no attempt to infringe on marriage rights for same-sex couples, could change their unshakeable belief that the Conservatives are officially a homophobic party. In 2006 the Prime Minister, after losing a free vote in the House of Commons on a motion to re-open the marriage debate, said the issue was settled and he didn’t see revisiting it in the future. Nevertheless, pointing this out has no effect on critics who invariably say, “Yes, but – look at the party’s official Policy Declaration! Homophobia!” It’s the Scarlet Letter H that hangs around the neck of the party.

And you know what? It’s hard to defend the Conservative Party against that kind of criticism. They have a point – if a Conservative government has no intention of changing the marriage laws, then why is it still official party policy?

Sitting around the table during that first meeting, we all wanted an answer to that question. So we decided to try to do something about it. We knew that the party’s national convention was coming up in May, so we made it our goal to push as hard as we could to change the policy and bring it in line with the political reality in this country.

We wanted to be clear that we were still Conservatives and were working from “within the family”, so to speak. We wrote a letter to Rona Ambrose advising her of our plans and asking for her advice on how to proceed. Two weeks later, in mid-January, we put the letter up on our website. I put a link to the letter on Twitter that day and went to bed. When I got up the next day, I noticed something was up – we had something like 75 Twitter mentions, which is huge for us. Later that day I got a message from Stephanie Levitz of the Canadian Press asking for an interview about the letter – she wrote an article for iPolitics later that week. Then things really snowballed – Stephanie’s article was picked up by the Globe and Mail and a number of other papers. I was interviewed by John Ivison of the National Post, by Metro News, Daily Xtra and a number of other news outlets. Then CBC radio called, and I was being interviewed in Toronto by Metro Morning, Ontario Morning, and Ottawa Morning. The next day the CBC did interviews with us on 20 stations coast to coast. It was pretty hectic. It was clear that we were newsworthy and that there was widespread incredulity that opposition to same-sex marriage was still official party policy 11 years after marriage equality became the law of the land.

When the furor died down, we met again to plan our way forward. We sent letters to all Conservative MPs and asked to meet with them to make our case. We eventually met with almost 20 MPs from around the country and were pleased to get their support. One of the first to reach out to us was Michelle Rempel, who has been incredibly helpful, giving us advice on how to navigate through the party’s complicated policy amendment procedure.

We reached out to allies around the country who were also pushing for this change and coordinated our efforts with them. Together we lined up sympathetic EDAs to introduce our proposed changes at regional policy meetings, and successfully passed resolutions at regional meetings in Toronto, Alberta and Quebec, sometimes in the face of stiff opposition.

Some of us went as delegates to the Ontario PC convention in Ottawa in March where we made our presence known and politely explained to whomever would listen what we were doing. We had a Pub Night for our friends in Ottawa where Patrick Brown and Maxime Bernier both stopped by to lend their support. I asked Patrick Brown during the leader’s Q&A session what his policy on marriage equality was now, since he had voted to re-open the issue in 2006 when he was a federal MP. In front of the assembled delegates he stated unequivocally that his views had changed and that he was proud to support marriage equality now. (See video).

A few weeks later, Interim Leader Rona Ambrose sent us a letter of support. She wrote, “I have been unequivocal that the Conservative Party welcomes all conservatives regardless of sexual orientation … If the resolution makes it to the National Policy Convention Floor this May, I will be happy to support it.”

So that’s where we are today. The resolutions have been sent to the National Policy Committee, which decides which proposals make it to the Vancouver convention. We’re waiting for their decision, but we’re confident that the changes we’ve proposed have broad support in the party and will go to the convention. A few of us have been selected as delegates in our EDAs, along with a number of our allies elsewhere in the country. We’re going to coordinate with sympathetic delegates, LGBT and straight, and we’re going to do everything we can to make this happen. We can no longer be the party that advocates taking away the hard-won civil marriage rights of same-sex Canadians. We don’t want to have these “hidden agenda” conversations anymore.

When we were doing the CBC radio interviews, we were asked every single time, “Why don’t you just join another party?” My response was “because we’re Conservatives!” We don’t define the party by its policy on this one issue, but our political opponents certainly do. There are people within the Conservative party who do this too – we’ve been told a number of times by party members that if the Conservatives don’t take a stand on gay marriage, we’re indistinguishable from the Liberals.

 We are not Liberals, or NDPers. We are free-market libertarians who want the state out of our private lives. It’s time the party stepped away from this policy, which has no chance of being implemented by a future Conservative government, and which only serves to paint us as reactionary dinosaurs who will use the coercive power of the state to target a minority; who, despite our record in government, should never be trusted with legislative power. 

We are going to change this policy, and we need your help. If you’re going to the Vancouver convention and want to work with us there, please contact us and make sure we have your contact information. If you’re not going but would like to help, please consider making a donation. Not only is this hard work, but it’s expensive. And above all, make it known that you support this important effort. We need to show that the so-called Conservative Big Tent is not just a meaningless metaphor.

Eric Lorenzen