The hype the past few weeks around World Pride coming to town has been, at times, so over-the-top one would think that being gay has become positively mainstream. Not that it has, considering how homosexuals are treated (even threatened with death) in 72 countries around the world and how gay rights are still out of the question in several states south of the border.
Nevertheless, I am thrilled how far we have come considering, after living 20 years in the closet, I came out officially on the front page of this very paper seven years ago and was ecstatic to celebrate my fifth wedding anniversary with my wife, Denise Alexander, this past weekend. We were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony in June 2009.
Still not everything is entirely rosy in Rainbow Land. I hate to rain on the Pride parade, but there’s an elephant in the room and that elephant’s name is Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). Despite a five-year fight by Jewish groups, a few brave city politicians like James Pasternak and pressure from all the mainstream media to get this group out of a publicly funded parade, it has been given the green light by Pride’s organizers to march yet again in Sunday’s Pride parade (and likely in Saturday’s Dyke March).
City manager Joe Pennachetti, the city’s director of equity, diversity and human rights Uzma Shakir (outed by me in 2012 for having written several sympathetic articles about Palestine on rabble.ca, a virulent anti-Israel website) and most city councillors paved the way for QuAIA’s involvement by sanctioning a 2012 report penned by Shakir that stated the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” did not violate the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
To deal with the pressure from the Jewish community and Jewish gays, council tossed the whole “can of worms” to a dispute resolution panel, created by gay community religious leader Reverend Brent Hawkes to mediate complaints about QuAIA. It was no surprise to those who went through the process, like Anita Bromberg of B’nai Brith, that the panel ruled QuAIA’s message was not discriminatory toward the Jewish community.
The stakes are far higher this year, given that QuAIA’s noxious message will be spread on the world stage. Better yet, according to figures obtained from the city and the province, nearly $2 million in city and provincial funding has been allocated to the WorldPride event, almost triple what Pride has received in years gone by.
The province is providing a total of $1.28 million “through a variety of programs,” Premier Kathleen Wynne’s spokesman Zita Astravas told me in an e-mail last week. That compares to the $300,000 provincial tourism grant given in previous years.
In addition to a $160,500 cultural grant, the City of Toronto has allocated an extra $150,000 for WorldPride-specfic programs and another $24,000 for three local groups on the city grants A-list who are apparently planning their own events. City spokesman David Clark confirmed the city will be providing in-kind policing, emergency medical and post-parade clean-up services estimated at $300,000. I’m guessing that number is low considering the number of people expected to attend the WorldPride parade and the number of groups marching in it.
It became obvious to me after days of repeatedly trying to reach Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu and openly gay downtown councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (who I first outed as having tight ties to QuAIA before the 2010 election campaign) that no one really wants to talk about QuAIA’s involvement. Both did not return numerous e-mails and phone calls.
QuAIA member and organizer Tim McCaskell did finally confirm by e-mail that they will have a contingent in the parade and a vehicle to carry their sound system “like last year” but refused to elaborate.
Asked how he feels about QuAIA’s involvement, given that he is the parade’s Grand Marshal this year, Rev. Hawkes said he doesn’t think there’s any Grand Marshal who loves or feels comfortable with every element of the parade, indicating it’s “not appropriate” -- given his role this year -- to comment on a specific group.
Despite her silence on QuAIA’s participation in the parade, Wong-Tam had no problem lauding a mural called Full Spectrum -- inaugurated a week ago in honour of World Pride -- designed by a key member of QuAIA. Turns out the 14-x-70-foot mural, now mounted on the wall of Village Centre at Maitland and Church Sts., was created by the voice of QuAIA, Elle Flanders, and her wife Tamira Sawatzky.
The $85,000-mural was paid for by developer Jason Fane through his contribution to acquire extra density for his Chaz Yorkville condo development on Charles St. East.
Fane said when it was decided a sculpture would be done and attached to his Village Centre building, Wong-Tam put him in contact with what were described as “two very fine artists” -- Flanders and her wife. He said the couple designed the sculpture -- which includes 102 colours --but somebody else fabricated and installed it.
Asked if he was aware of Flanders’ ties to QuAIA, Fane, who is Jewish, said he “only became aware of this recently” and wasn’t familiar with the “who’s who” in Toronto art community, given he is based in New York.
Flanders didn’t respond to requests for comment. Replying on behalf of Wong-Tam, assistant David Simor would only say the mural was “privately commissioned” and “no public funds were used” -- ignoring all of my questions about the lack of proper tendering and the use of someone with ties to the QuAIA group.
Justine Apple, executive director of the Jewish group Kulanu (with whom Denise and I will be marching next Sunday), said they will have a Tel-Aviv beach-themed grafitti float with an Israeli DJ and dancers in the parade, along with 100 marchers including several LGBT people from Israel.
As happy as she is about Kulanu’s involvement, she is not at all proud of what has happened with QuAIA.
“WorldPride is about openness and inclusiveness and not about divisive, hateful messaging that creates a toxic and intolerant environment,” she said. “Groups that bring messages of discrimination, intimidation and hate should not be given licence to try and hijack the parade and turn it into a propaganda tool for inflammatory, anti-Israel venom.”
Gay activist and lawyer Martin Gladstone, who was demonized by the pro-QuAIA contingent for his fight to get them out of the parade, feels the group represents the “demise” of the once proud gay rights movement.
“By branding Israel as a standalone apartheid racist state, groups like QUAIA only deepen that hatred,” Gladstone said. “They attract anti-Israel followers to their ranks to march in solidarity with them, and many can no longer separate the anti-Zionism from the anti-Semitism.”
Frank Diamant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said he feels public and elected officials are becoming “desensitized” to the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiments that are becoming “more pervasive” in Canada and they don’t realize the “long-term damage” of allowing QuAIA and its messaging in the publicly funded Pride parade.
“I strongly believe ignoring the problem will only exacerbate ... the problem will not go away,” Diamant said, noting bureaucrats and politicians have buried their heads it the sand about QuAIA. “When you have a cancer you have to deal with it, you have to constantly shine the light on it.”
WHERE MAYORALTY CANDIDATES STAND ON QuAIA’s INVOLVEMENT IN THE PRIDE PARADE:
OLIVIA CHOW: “Pride celebrates equality in one of our city’s most diverse festivals. As such, it should be governed by the city’s human rights policy. The issue (of QuAIA marching) has been studied through this lens and I support that process.”
ROB FORD: Still in rehab.
DAVID SOCKNACKI: “I’ve consulted with members of the Jewish community and others and while I strongly disagree with QuAIA’s message, I believe we should stop giving them extra publicity and instead focus on Pride’ s positive message. Many gay and straight Torontonians -- including countless Toronto Jews -- are participating in World Pride activities with that in mind.”
KAREN STINTZ: ”The Pride Parade is a fantastic celebration of the LGBT community and our city’s diversity. The participation of one group whose views I oppose hurts -- but does not ruin -- this celebration. Let’s focus on all that is good about Toronto as we work to build a better tomorrow.”
JOHN TORY: “I’ve always said the use of Apartheid is a fraud and offensive … considering what goes on in Israel where human rights are well protected, including gay rights. I’ve felt it was inappropriate to have something like that in the Pride parade because it is a celebration of gay rights. But, I do think as a result of a lot of what has been written, they have lapsed into a state of largely irrelevant status.”
Pride no place for anti-Israel group | LEVY | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun