Circa 1977 at my Calgary Catholic high school, most of my friends — charter members of the drama/music/poetry/punk rock subculture — were gay.
So, even in arch-conservative Calgary, being gay wasn’t a big deal to us. We went to gay clubs like the Parkside Continental, and we wrote and sang songs that were sexually ambiguous. My band’s biggest hit, in fact, featured Yours Truly hollering about making “sweet passionate love” to another guy.
(That song is now covered by Britain’s hottest band, the Palma Violets, by the by. Their decision to do so has unleashed neither critical acclaim nor a torrent of homophobia.)
Arriving in supposedly progressive Ottawa to study journalism in 1980, then, was a bit of a shock. Nobody, in those days, was out of the closet. I had surmised that NDP MP Svend Robinson was in one, so I went to see him to do a story about being gay in public life.
It was 1982, and Robinson was plainly nervous when I met with him. He even brought along an assistant to tape record the exchange. I wasn’t interested in outing Robinson — he would do that all by himself not so long afterwards — but in understanding gayness and public life.
That was then, this is now. These days, being gay and a politician isn’t such a big deal anymore. New Democrats, then Liberals, came around to the view that gays and lesbians are (a) electable and (b) not qualitatively different than straight politicians.
So, Robinson blazed a proud trail for many others. Mario Silva, Libby Davies, Bill Siksay, Real Menard and Scott Brison got elected federally. Provincially, Kathleen Wynne is Canada’s first openly gay premier and no one has said they care (apart from Wynne’s leadership team, that is, who regarded every criticism as homophobia, but that’s a story for another day).
And municipally, there have been not a few openly gay mayors and councillors, too, mostly of the New Democrat and Liberal variety.
But what of Conservatives and conservatives? Well, I can verily attest to the fact that there are as many — if not more — gay folks nestled in the bosom of conservativism. Gay men, in particular, seem to be disproportionately inclined towards fiscal conservatism.
But a thin blue line of homophobia persists in conservative politics, at least in respect of social policy. Conservatives held out against gay marriage, gay adoption and gay pension rights longer than any other party. Gay and conservative isn’t as incompatible as it once was — but a tension remains, nonetheless.
Conservatives will point out at this point that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has recently criticized the plainly gay-hating dictatorship of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But Baird doesn’t deserve credit for doing so — opposing bigotry should be part of his job description.
The reaction of Conservatives to Baird’s stance on Russian homophobia is telling. By hailing what Baird said in year 2013 AD, they are implicitly acknowledging their party still has a way to go.
They are headed in the right direction, but they need to go faster. When human rights are at issue, delay is almost as bad as denial.
And, to those Conservatives who worry they will alienate their base, I say worry not. If a bunch of Calgary misfits could openly celebrate gay causes in the 70s — and live — well, arch-conservatives can, too.