How Canada's Conservative Party has become a champion of gay rights
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird stood before the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations this month and outlined his aggressive agenda to “stand up to the violent mobs that seek to criminalize homosexuality.”
“Draconian punishment and unspeakable violence are inflicted on people simply for whom they love and for who they are,” he said.
That same day, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney touted Canada as a haven for gay refugees from Iran. Working with Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, Mr. Kenney’s office had fast-tracked 100 gay Iranians into Canada, saving them from possible execution.
A mere seven years ago, the Tories were famously the opponents of same sex marriage. Now, the Harper Conservatives freely push gay rights abroad and even host an annual gathering of gay Tories. While they remain the favourite punching bag for Canadian LGBT activists, have the Harper Tories become unlikely warriors for gay rights?
“I can no longer shock people in the conservative movement when I tell them I’m gay – but I can shock gay people when I tell them I’m Conservative,” said Fred Litwin, and former vice-president of the Ottawa Centre Conservatives.
In June, Mr. Litwin was one of the organizers of the Fabulous Blue Tent Party, a gathering of approximately 800 gay Conservatives at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel that went until 3 a.m.
The same weekend, however, Tories at the party’s annual convention also passed a resolution supporting religious organizations who refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
Although Mr. Harper has resolutely vowed never to touch same-sex marriage, it was only 2005 when, as opposition leader, he told an Ottawa rally, “when elected Prime Minister … I will bring in legislation that will define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” That same year, in a lengthy parliamentary speech Jason Kenney called marriage a “tautologically a heterosexual institution.”
“It’s no secret that the Conservative Party hasn’t always been the biggest champion of gay rights, but public pressure, and quite frankly, society evolving has changed their views,” said Jamie Ellerton, an openly gay former staffer for Mr. Kenney.
“The Conservative Party, like the rest of society, has moved to be more supportive of gay rights in recent years, and I see that trend continuing,” he said.
Mr. Baird often supported same-sex marriage in his days as a Progressive Conservative member of Ontario’s provincial parliament. As foreign affairs minister, he has taken the fight for gay rights overseas.
In January, before the Royal Commonwealth Society in London Mr. Baird harangued African and Caribbean countries for keeping anti-homosexual laws on their books, calling it a hangover of the colonial era. Two months later, he spoke out against a Russian law that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality, effectively outlawing all gay pride events.
“Canada’s ambassador has written to the Russian government to express our deep concern and, yes, we have at his request, put a travel advisory on our website,” said Mr. Baird.
In 2009, Mr. Harper spoke out against a Ugandan bill that promised to dramatically toughen criminal sanctions against homosexuality, which were already illegal in the African country.
“When I was at the Commonwealth conference, what was [Stephen Harper] talking about? The gays,” Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said in 2010.
After the 2011 suicide of gay Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley, Mr. Baird told the House that homophobia has no place in Canadian schools, and then appeared with other Tory MPs in a video for the “It Gets Better Project,” an online campaign looking to curb the disproportionately high suicide rates among LGBT youth.
In June, members of the Tory caucus even came to the rescue of a transgendered rights bill put forward by NDP MP Randall Garrison. Promising to protect transgender people under the Canadian Human Rights Act and make anti-transgender violence a hate crime, the bill passed second reading thanks to the support of 15 Conservative MPs, including Jim Flaherty and Lisa Raitt.
“I don’t question other members who may have a different take on this, but, for me and for the kind of principles that I wish to stand up for, this was important,” Tory MP Bruce Stanton, one of the bill’s supporters, told Simcoe.com
U.K. Tories are undergoing a similar evolution. In October, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to suspend aid to Commonwealth countries if they refused to abandon anti-gay legislation. Last summer, during a reception for LGBT representatives at 10 Downing Street, Mr. Cameron promised to legalize gay marriage by 2015. “If it’s good enough for straight people like me, it’s good enough for everybody,” he said.
Gay/conservative relations are not nearly as cordial in the United States, where large swaths of the Republican party view homosexuality as a sin. In May, Richard Grenell, an openly gay spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, stepped down after the campaign was barraged by criticism from socially conservative groups.
By focusing on free enterprise and individual liberties, instead of religious and cultural issues, Canada’s conservatives have been able to maintain a “much broader tent than the Republican Party in the United States and a stronger movement overall,” wrote Chris Reid, a gay former Conservative candidate, in an email to the Post.
Still, the stigma of Tories-as-homophobes remains.
In 2008, the NDP discovered a videotape from 1991 featuring Saskatchewan Tory MP Tom Lukiwski spouting off against “homosexual faggots with dirt under their fingernails that transmit diseases” – prompting calls for his resignation.
In January, when a foreign same-sex couple who had married in Toronto in 2005 returned to Canada to apply for a divorce, a Crown lawyer argued that the marriage was never technically valid, since neither of the partners were Canadian permanent residents at the time. It was purely a jurisdictional decision – but fingers immediately pointed at a Harper government plot to dissolve thousands of foreign same-sex marriages. (Tellingly, the government introduced measures to make it easier for same-sex couples to divorce.)
Mr. Kenney is still criticized for a 2010 episode in which internal documents revealed his office had decided to omit a brief gay rights timeline from Canada’s official citizenship guide, opting instead to feature a photo of Olympic gold medal swimmer Mark Tewksbury, identifying him as a “prominent activist for gay and lesbian Canadians.”
In truth, the 1990s-era guide had never contained any mention of gay rights before Mr. Kenney ordered an update in 2009. An updated edition now reads “Canada’s diversity includes gay and lesbian Canadians, who enjoy the full protection of and equal treatment under the law, including access to civil marriage.”
The Tories also face criticism for being conspicuously absent from gay pride events. Mr. Litwin said he’s tried to rally Tories into the Ottawa pride parade, but noted that Tory cabinet ministers have been booed in similar appearances at LGBT events.
“Can [the opposition] point and say there’s no openly gay MPs in the Conservative caucus?” said Mr. Ellerton. “I suppose that’s true – maybe one day there will be.”
The Conservatives do have one openly gay caucus member — Senator Nancy Ruth. She originally sat as an independent Progressive Conservative when she was appointed by Liberal Paul Martin, but then became a Conservative after the Harper government’s 2006 election win.
“I’m fat, I’m short, I’m a lesbian, and I’m a Conservative. I don’t fit in with most people I know,” she said in a 2009 interview, adding “I’m here to do things and you can only do things if you have access.”
Tristin Hopper | September 22, 2012 6:00 AM ET | firstname.lastname@example.org | @TristinHopper