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Friday, June 18, 2004

The Right Seldom Is

by Eleanor Brown

Alas, the land of milk and honey goes sour. When cowardly politicians refuse to take advantage of widespread good will and drag out granting equal rights for gay men and lesbians, they create a horrible brew of sweet gone rancid.

The Canadian election campaign, with the homophobic rightwingers now pulling into the lead, has gay men and lesbians in hysterics. And with good reason: one gay lawyer and national same-sex marriage spokesperson -- a terribly earnest and calm man, the sort of "proper," well spoken, well dressed and well coifed white man who outwardly connects with so many of the middle class whose prejudices run the country -- was recently assaulted at a rally for the Conservative Party.

First he was walloped with a sign, then punched. Then he was hustled out of the meeting by security; the assaulter was let be. All caught on TV.

Our community has suffered a false security these last two years. It was the euphoria that comes from progressive social policies and expensive but decisive courthouse victories. The former prime minister, Liberal Party leader Jean Chretien, promised to decriminalize pot possession, send drugs and millions of dollars to Africa for AIDS prevention and treatment, and support gay marriage.

All these promises came, of course, because he was expecting to retire. In modern North America, true progressive change only comes when those in power know they can avoid the religiously-whipped voters, who now outnumber the disillusioned but well-meaning middle-of-the-roaders who no longer bother to cast a ballot.

And yet, what did His Nibs Jean Chretien get done before retiring last December? Er, nothing.

Anything that became law was done despite him. Gay human rights was legislated through the courts; gay marriage was legislated through the courts. He left without seeing the pot law and AIDS cash and drug changes through. And a law criminalizing hate speech against homosexuals was spearheaded by an opposition politician.

New Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin stepped in to fill the gap before the election, to be held June 28. He spent six months making announcements, but did exactly... nothing. We're just supposed to believe that he'll be a Do-er once he gets elected.

So what's all this wishy-washiness left us with? A growing backlash against gay people. Homosexuality is now a bona fide election issue, in a country where just a few months ago, tolerance was considered a national virtue.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper is now poised to win the election. Harper has promised to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

He's opened the possibility that he might overturn Supreme Court of Canada judgments legalizing gay marriage. And the fear is that he might even turn back basic human rights guaranteeing equality in terms of housing and employment for gay people.

Harper voted in 1996 against including sexual orientation in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Whether he did this for his party or for himself is irrelevant. Harper's shock troops are filled with bigots, and to hold on to power he'll have to allow some of the anti-gay bile to bubble to the top.

In an unfortunate coincidence, Statistics Canada released a survey on the sexual orientation of Canadians this month that reported that one percent of Canadians identify as homosexual, while 0.7 percent said they were bisexual.

Already, rightwingers are saying the definition of marriage shouldn't be changed for such a small number of people. Activists are responding by saying fear of persecution led to under-reporting - instead of arguing that human rights should not be based on numbers. (Imagine arguing that blacks don't need equal rights because there are only 100 of them.) They're just making things worse.

Canadian politics are a mess.

The moral for gay people is that life in the mainstream is about never letting your guard down. It's exhausting, and stressful, and we must never take our rights for granted.

And we must participate in civic life. All of us must speak out and must vote, and we must encourage everyone we know to vote.

And we must not vote based on our panic.

I fear greatly that English Canada is about to become a two-party system, just as the United States has become. A place where you vote, based not on your beliefs, but against what you're afraid of.

That way leads only to a tyranny of a different kind. By compromising our own beliefs, "strategic voting" leads to our own further marginalization from participation in true democracy - and we'll have done it to ourselves.

Plus, those other smaller parties will be destroyed, and it will be decades before we can resurrect truly progressive politics and out-of-the-box ideas on the national stage.

So, despite all of the negatives, I plead with Canadian voters: cast your ballot for those you believe in. If it's the Liberals, go for it. For the New Democratic Party, for the Greens, for the Bloc, for whomever. Voting for those we truly support keeps diversity alive.

And strong opposition parties will keep our rights alive, too. Politicians in multiple opposition parties, all of them on the political left, will band together to fight a Conservative government's loonier evils. And they'll encourage a progressive future.

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