by Robert Pinch


Pete Buttigieg (Boot Edge Edge) is my latest queer hero. In February 2021 he became the first gay presidential Cabinet member to be confirmed by the US Senate. History has been made but it’s been a long and often painful road. Not that long ago “you couldn’t have any job in the federal government if you were gay” Buttigieg reminded us in a recent NBC interview. Discrimination against gays in the workplace is now well documented and, thank god, there are now laws in most Western countries to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community. The list of the marginalized and vulnerable has now been extended: 2SLGBTQQIA+ (two spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and/ or asexual). You will have to use Google, as I did, to find out what intersex means. The list is  somewhat head-spinning, and the cynical will no doubt cry out “This is ridiculous. Things are getting out of hand. Who can keep up?”. Maybe, but if you happen to identify with one of these initialisms you will want the same rights and protections afforded to the rest of them. 


I’m a 74-year-old gay man and I take none of these hard-fought battles and positive changes for granted.


The journey from Stonewall in the US and the 1980s bathhouse raids in Toronto to Pete Buttigieg, with his husband Chasten at his side, being sworn in as Secretary of Transportation in the Biden-Harris Administration has been anything but smooth sailing. But the progress made along the way has given hope to those of us who have in the past experienced feelings of self-loathing and terror because of our sexual orientation. It will never be a perfect world but there is much to celebrate in contemplation of the freedoms that many of today’s gay youth take for granted. Human rights should never be taken for granted. Just as we honour War Veterans and the Fallen for the sacrifices they made in order for civilians to enjoy freedom from tyranny and oppression, we need to honour those queer activists who risked their lives standing up to the cops at Stonewall and the bathhouse raiders in cities like Toronto. They paved the way by getting into what Congressman and Civil Rights Activist John Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble”. 


I’m a 74-year-old gay man and I take none of these hard-fought battles and positive changes for granted. I grew up in Willowdale (a neighbourhood in North Toronto) in the 1950s and 60s. I have often thought that I Love Lucy saved my life. That marvellously funny TV show gave me hope. I’ve seen some episodes 5 times or more and I still end up rolling on the floor laughing. Lucy gave me hope that there was something good and wholesome (and funny) beyond the strict confines of my conformist, dysfunctional working-class family. As a kid, of course, I could not have articulated this feeling but I had to believe, for the sake of my sanity, that there was something else to look forward to when I grew up. During my childhood and adolescence, I endured listening to my father tell queer jokes. Even as an adult I never had the guts to confront him on this; I never had the guts to tell him I was gay. Jack Pearce, a neighbour on my street in Willowdale, will forever hold a special place in my heart for what he said when my dad referred to me as “his second oldest daughter”. Mr. Pearce said to my father “I don’t know about that Bruce but Bobby’s the best damn paperboy we’ve ever had”. I left the front porch, went straight to my room and bawled my eyes out. Not so much because of what my father said but because of the praise I got from this very kindly and classy neighbour. Praise was not something that was bestowed on anyone in my nuclear family that I can remember. 


It was long before Will and Grace in the late 90s introduced two gay male characters to television audiences that the first gay character appeared in an American TV sit-com. It happened on the American satire (?) All in the Family whose main character, Archie Bunker, gave us the most racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-union (you name it) male character ever created for TV. Steve, Archie’s long time friend and ex-linebacker, “comes out” on this show in its first season. It was a remarkable, shocking moment for this Nixon-era TV audience. It was important at the time that the character is presented as a “real guy” rather than some stereotypical “poofter”. Archie’s imperviousness to any attempt to raise his social/moral consciousness can be enormously irritating to observe, but the audience is meant to register the colossal gap between his deeply entrenched bigotry and many viewers’ sympathy for what is right. I’m not suggesting that right-wing social conservatives would have bought into the intended message, but many of those undecided or open-minded viewers may have had their eyes opened to the possibility that a gay man might be something other than a limp-wristed lover of Broadway Musicals. It made a crack in the door towards tolerance of gay people. Acceptance was still a long way off. Let it be noted, by the way, that limp-wristed lovers of Broadway Musicals are among my favourite people, and they should be treated with the same love and respect given to gay football players, for example.


How many people over 40, say, who were following the news at the time remember who Matthew Shepard was? He was a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming on the night of October 6, 1998. Matthew was targeted because he was gay by a couple of rednecks who pretended to be interested in him for sex and offered him a ride home. When they got him in their pickup truck and drove him out of town, they tied him to a fence in a very lonely part of Wyoming on a hill overlooking the city of Laramie. With his hands behind his back, his wrists were tied to a barbed wire prairie fence. According to the testimony of the two rednecks’  girlfriends, the killers taunted Matthew with gay-bashing words, smashed in his head with the butt of a pistol and left him unconscious in the cold night air to suffer alone for 18 hours before a kid on a bike found him. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital 5 days later. 


The Laramie Project is a 2000 play by Moisés Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theatre Project about the highly varied reaction of the townsfolk to what was obviously a hate crime. 


One of my proudest moments as a high school English teacher in the Brampton area (North West of Toronto) was convincing my Department Head to order a class set of The Laramie Project (published in 2001). I taught this play for a couple of years and when a theatrical production came to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto I decided to book a class excursion to see the play we had studied in class. The suburban area of Brampton where I taught is beautifully multicultural: black, brown, white and Asian. Half the students in that class had never been to Toronto (from Brampton) let alone seen a gay-themed play. I would guess that 90% of that class had never experienced live theatre before (apart from high school productions perhaps). So the whole experience may have been powerful for at least some of those grade 12 students for many different reasons.


Progress has been made in terms of gay rights in Canada, the US and most European/Scandinavian countries. But the fear of backsliding into right-wing intolerance is not far from the surface.


I was proud of myself for teaching The Laramie Project but, as a gay male teacher, I was always afraid that I would be accused of promoting an agenda. Sure enough, that happened. A homophobic mother of one of my students did try to do me in by calling the Principal and insisting on a meeting with me, the Principal and Vice-Principal. She threatened to call the Superindendent to denounce me as I don’t know what. At one point during the meeting this mother said she was thinking of consulting a lawyer. She was a viciously homophobic, fundamentalist Christian and I had to be very strong and careful about presenting the virtues and relevance of this text. Fortunately, I had strong support from the Principal and VP. They were great. My therapist skills from a previous incarnation (long story) came in handy. I was able to out-manipulate this homophobic woman and was sweet as pie in calming her down. I said things like “I think you are right. The next time I’m about to teach this play I should send a letter to parents explaining why I think the issues the play raises are important and relevant “. I never actually did that and never had a problem after that.


Progress has been made in terms of gay rights in Canada, the US and most European/Scandinavian countries. But the fear of backsliding into right-wing intolerance is not far from the surface. I have a black Jamaican friend who happens to be gay. He loves his country of birth and loves the family members still living there, but he refuses to return ( pre-Covid) to Jamaica for vacations. He is terrified of the degree of homophobia he knows is entrenched in that culture, especially in young  black men. He no longer feels safe to go home. The freedoms and privileges enjoyed by the LGBTQ community in North America and some European countries are wonderful but we all know these privileges are not found in all countries on this planet. Homosexuality is still illegal and punishable by prison terms and death in many African and Middle Eastern countries, for example. I’ve read stories (possibly apocryphal) about vigilante groups of young men in Saudi Arabia rounding up men alleged to be gay, burying them up to their necks in sand, and then stoning them to death. The other week the Globe and Mail carried a small piece about a lesbian couple that recently moved to Berlin from a city in Poland because they could no longer stand the homophobic anti-gay hate messages being blasted from trucks on the streets of Polish cities. The Roman Catholic Church still has a stranglehold on the country’s social and political life, which continues to create an unbearably hostile environment for many gay people.


Human Rights abuses abound throughout the world and the progress made in fighting them is cause for celebration but of course this fight continues on so many fronts. The scope of this article is necessarily limited for purposes of coherence and unity of subject but attention must be paid to some current events. Only since the George Floyd trial is America seriously beginning to tackle systemic racism in police forces across the country. Covid 19, in good part due to Donald Trump’s lethal “China virus” rhetoric, has unleashed xenophobic attacks on Asian citizens throughout the Western world; the recent Israeli/Palestinian conflict has inflamed antisemitism in North America and Europe. 


So many problems (I haven’t even mentioned Climate Change and cyber terrorism) but we must take courage and hope from any corner we find it. The Biden-Harris Administration hopes to restore  Democratic values at home and abroad. In the Introduction to his latest book, Trust, Pete Buttigieg offers both hope and a dire warning:


I believe events have primed the 2020s to be a decade that determines our future. It will be in these years that we succeed or fail in advancing racial and economic justice , in stopping the worst effects of climate change, and in repairing the standing of our country around the world. The choices we are about to make will reverberate for the balance of the century. These years will either generate a vision for a new American social democracy as wide-ranging and imaginative as the work of the New Deal and Civil Rights Era combined, or solidify the trajectory of an American decline that would itself be the story of the century, almost certainly to the detriment of liberal democracy throughout the world. 


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