Saturday, 22 September 2012

Are the Conservatives 'Warriors for Gay Rights'? Hardly!

If this writer responded to every idiotic article and statement passing through the pages of the National Post he would be unlikely to leave the confines of his desk. Nevertheless, there are moments when an article appears that is so earth-shatteringly naive and idiotic that it deserve a response. In today's paper, columnist Tristin Hopper raises the question "have the Harper Tories become unlikely warriorsfor gay rights?" He then proceeds to outline a litany of areas in which the Harper Conservatives have been advancing the cause of gay rights across the globe.

On the surface is does seem like the party has done a rather sudden about face on the issue. Its stance of queer issues has seemed to soften. This reflects a few factors. First, the reality is that the tide of public opinion has turned sharply against the social conservative membership of the party. By and large Canadians – by a healthy and steadily growing majority - support the gains made by the LGBT community. There is less outright hostility en masse to equality of treatment, whether it is for social benefits or the rights to marry. Moreover, this is broadly the view of the median voter, a segment of the population that was indispensable to the party’s victory in 2011.

One should not, however, conflate political expediency with deep changes in attitudes. There are many within the Conservative caucus and membership who remain hostile to any extension of gay rights and, particularly, to marriage equality. What has changed is the leadership’s understanding of how the issue plays with the public. Outright hostility – as the Wild Rose in Alberta recently discovered – is no longer a vote getter. Does this mean that the Conservatives have at an ideationally level abandoned opposition? Not likely. Rather it illustrates that, as has been the hallmark of the Harper government, pragmatism and a drive for power vastly outstrips commitments to ‘values’.

Pragmatism again rules on the issue of same-sex marriage. The government realizes that, as a fact of law, marriage equality is entrenched. The only way to undo this would be to invoke the section 33 of the Charter – the notwithstanding clause – something Harper, despite his antipathy for the document, is loath to do. That section has not been invoked in nearly a decade and, more importantly, has never been utilized by the federal Parliament. Moreover, to use the override would merely give credence to the notion of a ‘hidden agenda’ and would play exceptional poorly with the electorate. To use such a powerful tool to legislate against both the courts and public opinion is a non-starter. Harper, ever the shrewd politician, knows better.

Secondly, the government’s new found commitment has as much to do with geopolitics and foreign policy as it does for commitment for gay rights abroad. Iran, as we have seen recently, is a special case which has been signaled out, not for its stance on queer rights but rather because of its stance on Israel. Hopper notes that “Mr. Kenney’s office had fast-tracked 100 gay Iranians into Canada, saving them from possible execution” all the while ignoring the reality of other queer refugee claimants being rejects for asylum and returned to their country of origin. This is pinkwashing at its finest. If Iran was not a special case for this government, those lucky one hundred would have been returned without second thought. Refugees, particularly from Central America, continue to face deportation. The treatment of queer Iranian refugees is not a common experience and owes more to government’s particularly stance of Iran than it does to a commitment to queer rights.

Additionally, the piece makes reference to John Baird’s forceful ‘haranguing’ of Latin American and African countries for their repressive treatment of their gay and lesbian citizens. Here again we see the double standard. While Iran has diplomatic relations cut, these states are sent letters of ‘concern’ and travel advisories. Indeed, Baird and Canada missed a critical opportunity to push for gay rights at the Commonwealth but let the moment pass. This isn’t emblematic of a warrior but of passive, half-hearted lip service. The result of this passive approach is negligible at best. There has been little in the way of force behind the rhetoric.

It should be noted that a single solitary ‘out’ Conservative Senator does not constitute an LGBT-friendly caucus. Given that there is at least one queer Cabinet member – and likely more – it is telling that they remain for whatever reason unable to come out is troubling. Indeed, the existence of gay conservatives is nothing new. They’ve merely been given a new prominence. Moreover, invoking stereotypes to hype ‘inclusivity – “Fabulous Blue Tent Party”, really!? – is hardly ushering in a new era.

Finally, there is a massive distinction between positive support for a community and quiet tolerance of a situation outside one’s control. On the same measure, there is a gulf between supporting rights abroad and supporting them at home. The Conservatives are hardly champions of gay rights at home or abroad.

If there has been a revolution in Conservative thinking, perhaps its time the Prime Minister came out unequivocally in favour of same-sex marriage, Trans rights and equality in general, admit he was wrong and move on. Until that happens the Conservatives are merely tolerating a situation which has, for public opinion and legal reasons, moved entirely beyond their control. Grudging toleration and cynical exploitation of gay refugees to promote a foreign policy agenda does not a warrior make. This is a government that has a long way to go to prove its queer bona fides. Oh, and John Baird, please come out.

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