If we expect more of our allies, we should also be delivering
By Paul Gallant
Rock ’n’ roll legend has it that Van Halen’s 1980s touring contract required that M&Ms, among other munchies, be provided in the band’s dressing room. “WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES,” read the rider, followed by the threat of forfeiting the show. The rider was originally gossiped about as an example of superstar indulgence—did they want their grapes peeled too?—but frontman David Lee Roth later revealed that the no-brown-M&Ms caveat had a much more serious purpose. It was a quick and easy test. Van Halen’s complicated tour contract included wonky details about electrical capacity and the weight-bearing capacity of the stage that, if unheeded, could result in disaster. If Roth arrived at a gig and noticed an M&M glitch, he instantly knew a technical problem would likely follow. The M&Ms weren’t important as a food item; they were important as a symbol of something much bigger and only tangentially connected.
Van Halen’s clever strategy is one way to make sense of a Mainstream Research poll conducted earlier this year that asked Canadians whether prospective immigrants should be screened for ‘Canadian values.’ Its weirdest finding was that 43 per cent of people who personally disagree with same-sex marriage said immigrants should be banned from coming to Canada if they don’t support same-sex marriage. It’s unlikely these homophobic holdouts are begging to be outnumbered. Whether with diabolical moxy or subconscious strategy, these folks seem to want to wield LGBT human-rights achievements as a coded filter, perhaps against immigrants from non-Western, poorer or Muslim countries. North of the 49th parallel, acceptance of LGBT people has come so far, so fast, that we have become Canada’s ‘brown M&Ms.’ Whether you seriously like the taste of us or not, we’ve become so stripped of controversy that we can be used as an indicator of broader identities, attitudes and politics. Despite our affinity for rainbows, we are most definitely not, in Donald Trump Jr.’s warped scheme of things, a bowl of poisoned Skittles.
“The LGBT issue is now an issue standing for something more,” says David Rayside, director emeritus of sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto. “Some of that can be good in terms of challenging gender norms and norms about family structures, but the risk is that it can turn into a way of punishing people who don’t look as if they fit.”
Evolutionary biologists, for the last couple of decades, have wrestled with the ‘purpose’ of homosexuality—what do gay and lesbian people contribute to humanity’s survival, if not the propagation of the species? (Considering modern reproductive technology and policies, make that “the easy and accidental propagation of the species.”) The ‘gay uncle’ theory, for example, suggests that childless people can increase the prevalence of their family’s genes by providing additional resources and care; natural selection works even better if a childless relative knows his or her way around a kitchen.
But we may be even more useful than that. Eric M. Russell, a psychology graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, has done several years of research into gay-straight friendships (http://gaystraight.com). Russell theorizes that gay male friends can be a vital part of straight women’s mating strategies. Neither a potential sexual predator nor a competitor for straight male partners, the gay best friend can provide honest insight into the male psyche, resulting in a boost to a woman’s reproductive fitness. “They put a lot of trust in gay men because they see them as an unbiased source of mating-related information that they can’t trust comingfrom straight men or straight women,” says Russell. “They see gay men as natural allies.”
I’d go further than Russell to argue that modern straight women also use gay friendliness as a brown M&Ms test for finding a mate who’s not boorish, sexist, or unwilling to spend Saturday afternoons shopping for home décor items. It’s hard for a straight man to mask toxic masculinity at a Pride beer garden or during a marathon session of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But, unfortunately, it’s not impossible. One of the reasons the country was so in thrall to the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault case was the mystery of how someone who was so gay friendly in public—as a radio host, Ghomeshi didn’t seem to mind if listeners believed he was gay—could turn out to be such a creep in private.
And that’s the problem with the M&M test. Symbols, once identified as such by cynics and Machiavellians, can be exploited. Politicians who marched in Pride parades were once taking a tremendous political risk. Now, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders have discovered, it’s easy political currency that doesn’t require whipped votes in Parliament or substantial government spending. I remember when the late Jack Layton, as a city councillor before he became the NDP’s national leader, would show up at LGBT charity events, getting bidding started and trading barbs with the colourful gender-bending characters in attendance. There were times he was probably the only straight man in the room, and in the unlikely event it got him any mainstream media attention, it certainly wasn’t positive attention. Layton was someone who read the whole ‘contract,’ who saw the LGBT community at its best and worst, and remained an ally.
These days, any Canadian politician who looks uncomfortable standing next to a drag queen would be sending the message that he or she isn’t fit for office. See: Ontario Conservative Leader Patrick Brown’s talking out of both sides of his mouth about same-sex marriage, abortion rights and Ontario’s gay-friendly sex education curriculum. These days, we can’t just check the candy bowl and know we’re in good hands. All the inclusion and diversity talk in the world means nothing if our allies aren’t putting their money where their mouths are and taking political risks on our behalf. LGBT people were so oppressed for so long that any political gesture was to be celebrated. Now gestures without action should be considered insults—attempts at branding and dog whistling that provide no real benefit.
On the other side of the equation, one has to wonder if “gay friendly” remains legitimate shorthand for other forms of social tolerance and progress, if it also means feminist, trans friendly, anti-racist and aligned with broader freedoms and human rights. Should Black Lives Matter, for example, expect that police officers recruited at Pride will be less trigger-happy towards black men? Or have LGBT communities also learned the trick of saying the right things, while failing to have done the hard work of going through what’s really being asked?
Although there’s been little research in Canada, Rayside says US studies suggest that LGBT people are somewhat less prejudiced than their straight counterparts. “One can never assume that one minority is going to be accepting of another minority group, but LGBT people are generally more progressive on a variety of indicators,” he says.
But if we should be expecting more of our allies, we should also be delivering more to those whose life experiences differ from ours. That requires serious conversations, not the pre-fab indignation—or, for that matter, shallow compliments—that have become so common.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto, and is currently development editor at Yongestreetmedia.ca.