June’s Ontario election, which saw openly lesbian Kathleen Wynne easily elected premier, may have convinced many that the province no longer sees sexual orientation as an issue. But Toronto’s interminable mayoral campaign—which culminates on October 27—may very well shatter that carefully tended assumption.
Homophobia has played a major role in the campaign so far—far more so than in 2010, which featured attacks on openly-gay candidate George Smitherman. The most high-profile incidents took place at Ford Fest on July 25, where LGBT protesters were physically assaulted and faced a barrage of homophobic epithets from Ford supporters. But there’s been a steady stream of anti-gay remarks and actions emanating from the Ford campaign, both before and after his stint in rehab.
And those actions have raised the question not only of whether homophobia will affect election results, but of whether the mayor’s attitudes are validating anti-gay sentiment in the general population.
“Rob Ford is close-minded, Rob Ford is a bigot, Rob Ford is homophobic,” says Kristyn Wong-Tam, Toronto’s only openly gay city councillor, who represents the ward which includes the gay village. “I think what he’s done is quite damaging. He’s created a space where it’s okay to let hate rise to the top through his promotion of tribalism. It’s us versus them, the stigmatization of what is thought of as the other.”
And Meyer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University says the mayoral campaign should serve as a wake-up call to a province and a gay community that may have grown complacent.
“I think this campaign is a reminder that there remains deeply held and homophobic views,” says Siemiatycki. “We’ve slid into the comfortable assumption that Ontario elected Kathleen Wynne. This is a reminder that that wishful and rosy outlook is not in fact the case. There’s a segment of Toronto society that remains deeply hostile.”
The Ford campaign—which did not respond to a request for an interview—has denied that the mayor is homophobic, with Rob, and campaign manager and brother Doug, saying that the campaign has gay volunteers and that the mayor is “spendaphobic, not homophobic.”
But many of the mayor’s critics say otherwise, with some asserting that homophobia is not only an expression of Rob Ford’s personal beliefs, but a deliberate campaign strategy to target socially conservative voters, especially in Toronto’s black and South Asian communities.
“Rob Ford is only interested in harnessing political power,” says Wong-Tam. “He may have done it deliberately as a means of political gain. For him, I believe it’s a wedge issue. This is how it works for Ford nationalists and those who belong to that tribe.
“I recognize that there is exploitation of homophobia among racialized communities. They’ve been able to racialize homophobia. They’re exploiting an underlying prejudice. Ford believes these communities are more socially conservative. He’s saying, ‘I don’t like gay people. I won’t attend their parades. I’m an ordinary hard-working man like you. I’m not them.’”
Ford’s refusal to attend Pride parades is well-known, as are his past votes against funding gay or AIDS-related projects. In February of this year, he unsuccessfully demanded that the Pride flag, which had been raised to support LGBT rights during the Russian Olympics, be removed. At the same time, he reiterated his refusal to attend Pride, which his brother repeatedly criticized for being full of “buck-naked men,” while accusing the gay community of being bullies.
Since his return from rehab, Rob Ford has voted against a proposal to study how to help homeless gay youth and refused to stand to applaud WorldPride’s success.
“Well, what the principle is, Rob Ford has decided not to go to the gay pride parade. And all of a sudden, he’s going to get up and he’s going to be applauding the gay pride parade?” Doug Ford told media.
But the tension came to a head at Ford Fest, the mayor’s annual picnic at the end of July. At the event in Scarborough, gay and lesbian protesters were surrounded by Ford supporters. Ford Nation members were captured on film tearing up protest signs, shoving protesters and yelling homophobic slurs.
Iola Fortino, an activist campaigning against gay-straight alliances in Catholic schools, told journalists at Ford Fest why she supports the mayor.
“When Ford does not attend WorldPride, which is equivalent to Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s speaking for the silent majority. He’s not for the homos, he’s for families…. We’re sick of this oppression, it’s hitting our youth. They want us to accept it, embrace it. We’re not gonna embrace the shit. We’re not gonna embrace this immorality. We’re gonna stand up against it, whatever it takes. We’re gonna support Ford for standing up against it, the only politician doing that. He’s not only good with our money, he’s got morals. That’s the biggest thing.”
But one of the more interesting attendees at Ford Fest is Ron Banerjee, the self-appointed head of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, an anti-Islamic group. Banerjee was filmed telling Ford Fest protesters to “Suck a dick, faggots” and putting his hands around the throat of one protester. He did not respond to an interview request.
After Ford Fest this year, Doug Ford told the Toronto Star about one of the protesters, “I apologize to him for what happened but you can’t go into any event, a sporting event even, taunting people. I don’t agree with (what happened) but something’s going to happen. Numerous people said he was looking for trouble.”
Banerjee’s attendance is a reminder of the anti-gay campaign that dogged Smitherman in the city’s South Asian community in 2010 when he found himself the target of homophobic signs and ads.
Signs were put along the Danforth near Victoria Park, saying Muslims should not vote for Smitherman. “Should Muslim [sic] vote for him who married a man?” asked the signs, which included a photo of Smitherman and his husband and a copy of an article about their adoption of a child.
And ads also popped up online and on the Canadian Tamil Broadcasting Corporation radio station featuring two people talking about the mayoral race. “What kind of question is this?” says one person. “I am Tamil. We have a religion and culture. Take Rob Ford: His wife is a woman.”
In 2010, the Ford campaign stated on Twitter that “I do not condone the recent Tamil Radio ad. I support diversity & have no issue with others’ lifestyle choices.” His communications manager compared the attacks to comments on Ford’s weight. No evidence was ever produced linking the slurs against Smitherman to the Ford campaign.
But Siemiatycki says he believes Ford’s view of the LGBT community is trickling down to the general populace.
“His attitude gives cover and legitimacy to broader views of homophobia. It creates political space for sections of the public to express homophobic views that otherwise would not be expressed.”
Siemiatycki, however, does not share Wong-Tam’s view that Ford’s homophobia is also being used as a deliberate electoral strategy.
“I think it’s pretty clear from Rob Ford’s entire career that his attitude, outlook and approach to the gay community is inhospitable, perhaps verging on hostile. But it’s not a strategy, it’s who he is. These are views and beliefs he strongly holds and harbours.”
Olivia Chow, one of the front-runners in the race for mayor, says Ford’s offensive comments point to the need for a new mayor. The campaign of John Tory, the other front-runner, did not return phone calls. Chow, while largely avoiding comment on Ford’s homophobia, says her campaign is based on appealing to everybody’s need for basic services, which she says trumps their fear of gays and lesbians.
“I don’t know why he says what he says, other than to say that many of his comments are offensive to a great many people,” she says. “That’s why we need a change. But I always want people to vote in hope rather than fear, including the young people who have been bullied or homeless for being gay. It’s important to vote out of a hope that life can be better. I think all people want to know how voting for mayor will improve their lives. I choose to connect with these voters on the basis that I can do more for your kids, I can build more affordable housing and get them across town faster.”
Wong-Tam shares Chow’s view that most voters, homophobic or not, can be appealed to on the basis of self-interest.
“Ford has a very simple message, but it’s a mile wide and an inch deep,” says Wong-Tam. “If you go deeper, they’ll tell you what matters to them is opportunities for success.”
But Wong-Tam worries that Ford’s homophobia will serve to build barriers between disaffected voters within the city—including both those who support Ford and LGBT voters—who should be working together for common goals.
“The politics of Ford Nation has not brought us more prosperity. It has divided us when we most need to be working together. We saw what it did to Smitherman. We have to reach out to everybody who feels disconnected from the city. That conversation has to be had at the local level.”
Siemiatycki feels that Ford’s homophobic views do appeal strongly to some of his supporters, but he cautions against assuming that prejudice is the only reason for their support. But while he doesn’t necessarily believe that homophobia will decide the mayoral race, he does have words of caution if Rob Ford is still a front-runner come election day.
“My own sense is that people who hold these homophobic views are supporting Ford for other reasons, as well. But it does serve to intensify their commitment and support for the mayor.”
If the race comes down to which candidate is most successful at getting their supporters out to vote, that might be enough to re-elect a mayor who once told city council—in words echoed by his supporters on July 25—that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And if Ford Fest is an indication of how a city’s leader can influence its citizens, then it could be a rough four years for Toronto’s LGBT community.