Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Message from the Minister of Closets & Denial

...It gets slightly less unbearable

It takes a lot of gall for a man who has been publicly closeted for his professional adult life to make grand, sweeping statements in the wake of a preventable tragedy. Obviously, I have no insight into the personal relationships of John Baird, so it’s impossible for me to say with certainty how open he is with his family and close friends. Yet the fact is, the cat is long since out of the bag. Indeed, that particular cat is long dead. The truth of the matter extends back to his time at Queen’s Park where, legend has it, if you shine a fluorescent light on it, his former office couch lights up like a dirty CSI Christmas tree. The point is, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is fooling no one. We know he’s gay. It’s no secret, yet he refuses to come out.

Certainly, yes, coming out is a personal decision, a choice one has to make alone. However, not everyone maintains the luxury of choosing their own time. Circumstance often compels individuals in to the open before their time, whether by necessity, accident, or outing. Outing is particularly prevalent as a tool in the United States, where politicians perceived as being gay often have the most virulently anti-gay voting records in Congress. Canada is fortunate to be in a less hostile environment where the outing is less vicious and often more subtle. The press here is polite and deferential, preferring the descriptor ‘bachelor’ to describe certain individuals, even those who are clearly acting as Lauren Harper’s flaming handbag gentleman escort. It is this politeness and lack of political vitriol that hasn't pushed firmly out in public.

I'm not making the argument that, once out, politicians need to go the full Glen Murray and proclaim themselves Canada's answer to Harvey Milk. Nor must they become a single-constituency MP. Svend Robinson, Libby David and Scott Brison can all attest to this. Being a gay man in a staunchly homophobic Conservative caucus is surely no picnic. The very concept of a right-wing homosexual still seems largely paradoxical to me. How is it possible to support a party which has, at its every turn, responded with hostility toward recognizing and protecting the queer community? How is it possible to stand with a party that denies the very real and pressing need to extend greater protection to Canada's trans community? A party so rooted in Old Testament fire and brimstone that the very thought of sodomy unnerves its core? In essence, how does a self-respecting homosexual stand with a party so vociferous in its hostility toward equality and tolerance? Again, the logic escapes me.

Baird, to his credit, has found himself on the right side of a number of important - albeit losing - votes. Yet, I would argue, that Cabinet raises the stakes. A place in the Ministry provides an important point of access to the Prime Minister and to the rest of Cabinet. This is a position that could be exploited in more detail to advocate on behalf of issues that affect the queer community. Indeed, given his role at Foreign Affairs, the chance for influence is even greater. Rather than backing the Harper Government's ludicrous ideological agenda abroad, one that includes the establishment of a watchdog to function as an 'ambassador' for religious freedoms, Baird should be instead stressing the need to promote freedoms in general, and not assigning a hierarchy to human rights. The recent outcry over the treatment of Christians in Egypt is a clear case of this idiotic thinking. While Christians may be restricted of rights and attacked physically, homosexuality is met with large penalties. In many other countries, including increasingly homophobic regimes in Africa and the Middle East, homosexuality remains punishable by death. Clearly there is a disjuncture between reality and the goals of the current government. Sadly, however, it is a pipe dream to expect Baird to take any firm role in advocating for increased rights and protections for the LGBT community at home or abroad.

It is infuriating to see the overt displays of hypocrisy and mendacity inherent in several Conservative MPs attempts to respond to the tragic and utterly preventable death of Jamie Hubley. While it is perhaps laudable -- if barely so -- that a minister such as Baird and his Cabinet colleagues Vic Toews and Rona Ambrose would take time to create 'It gets Better' videos, the fact that this claim is a blatant lie is compounded by the party they represent.

First, there is the obvious case of the closeted John Baird. If things do, indeed, 'get better', as he claims, why is there such a reluctance to come out and discuss his sexuality

Second, as mentioned, these ministers are part of a party that has systematically and consistently voted against extending rights and protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Canadians. That record is utterly indefensible.

Third, they are part of a party whose provincial offshoot in Ontario, under the leadership of Tim Hudak, is completely and utterly indifferent to the very problems that led a fifteen year old student to take his life: ingrained homophobia and discrimination in high schools. In the battle between students' rights and the  religious rights of parents, Hudak came down unequivocally on the side of parents and school boards to openly discriminate under the guise of religion.

These facts merely rub salt in open wounds to the lie that things do, in fact, get better. High School is a particularly difficult place for queer kids but life after it is scarcely better. What changes is the environment and the individual. The homophobia is still there, if less apparent. It becomes routinized to the point that it becomes slightly less unbearable. Homophobia becomes less visible, but still condoned and tolerated. It is a matter of perception. It becomes invisible to the straight community because they themselves are not subject to verbal abuse, slurs or physical attacks based on their sexuality. When homophobic violence occurs it only makes the news if a fatality has occurred. The cases in which someone has 'merely' been bashed is only picked up by the queer news outlets. In essence, the media is complacent in white washing and condoning homophobia. What isn't seen is scarcely counted as a problem.

The battles being waged are a clear indication that things do not get better. There is the constant stream of gay bashing which have become all too common. Another week, another case. While hate crimes against other groups are met with political outcry and media attention, hate crimes against the LGBT community fly under the radar.

Ontario's Catholic school boards are waging an open battle in defense of bigotry under the rubric of religious freedom. It is shocking in the level of comfort these boards take in espousing such homophobic views. A debate is currently before the Supreme Court in which the main issue is not free speech on the whole but special dispensation religion grants individuals to talk specifically about homosexuality. Sexuality is still firm grounds on which it is sanctioned to stand bigotry, all under the guise of religious freedoms. While prejudice still exists toward other identifiable groups, the recourse to hatred based on religious grounds is, by and large, no longer tolerated. Yet while race and gender are no longer justifiable grounds for discrimination under religion, sexuality -- specifically homosexuality -- remains an acceptable target.

The popular 'It gets better' videos may come with the best intentions, but they miss the point entirely. They amount to little more than an inspirational lie designed to get kids through high school, if not mentally, at least physically whole. What is most sad is that they do nothing to challenge homophobia and bullying in the high schools themselves. They do not attempt to transform these spaces into places of inclusion or intolerance. It takes for granted that secondary school is a Hobbesian state: solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet there is nothing intrinsic about this state of affairs. The videos also take as as fact that life is, in fact, much better off after high school for the queer community. This is, for obvious reasons, a questionable assumption. While it might be easy for Gaga to sing 'just be yourself', that message delivered to a kid in Arkansas could be deadly. It runs enough risks of its in own in 'safe' places like Toronto, Vancouver or Ottawa.

The bottom line is that much more needs to be done to ensure that the spaces inside and outside of Canada's high schools are safe places. A concerted effort needs to be made, one that will take more effort than the time it takes to make a video and wash one's hands of any sense of guilt. As Marx once noted: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it"2. Action is required, not analysis or more platitudes. Kids, whether gay or straight, deserve an environment free of bullying and hatred now. They can't wait wait until high school is over.

1. Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan.
2. Karl Marx. Theses on Feuerbach.

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