LBGT Recognition And The Commercial Factor

Please note: this was written before the Supreme Court of the United States proclaimed today that allowing gay Americans the right to marry is the law of the land. It’s not often anybody has said this in years, but … Good on America. We’ll probably have more to say about that later.

Saskatoon’s mayor and the worst-dressed politician in Saskatchewan, Don Atchison, heads for Rob Ford territory as he runs out of reasons not to take part in the Pride Flag raising at City Hall, leaving many in the culturally sophisticated city wondering how they elected a city council that thinks they live in Rosetown. Meanwhile Moose Jaw – a city overrun with Bible-thumpers since the Ku Klux Klan ran the hookers out of town in 1927 – had its own Pride Parade.
Regina’s event, which went Saturday, boasted not only 50 floats and participation from unions, human rights groups, businesses, supporters, and some political parties, but also an appearance by a two metre tall, pants-less Richardson ground squirrel, otherwise known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ sideline mascot, Gainer the Gopher. This is as big an endorsement from the Old Regina Families as having the Lieutenant Governor lead the crowd in a rendition of the Village People’s ‘YMCA’ from the premier’s balcony at the Legislative Building.
Almost a quarter century after Regina city council tried to undo its first ever gay pride week proclamation (and we owe a massive debt to the late Joe McKewen, the city councilor who refused on principle to give the unanimous council consent to overturn the proclamation), Regina – at least official Regina – is as far away from the bigoted philosophy of Bill Whatcott as the city is from Whatcott’s current residence, somewhere in the Philippines.
That’s why, on first reading, an article on Briarpatch’s website reads like the mutterings from the person whose destiny is to be the proverbial you know what in the punch bowl. But while the strident sloganeering in the article will probably put off more people from the issues raised than attract thinkers, it speaks to a larger truth: the economics of gay rights.
Up until about 10 or 15 years ago, governments and businesses who expressed the slightest support for gays and lesbians having the same rights not to be fired from their jobs, to be able to live and work and love in the same manner straight people could (and take for granted) were playing a high-risk, low-reward game. If it was still possible to lose one’s job and income for being gay, one could lose their ability to participate in the economic system. This is why many out-of-the-closet types in the old days were few and far between, and independently wealthy or came from old money families (this also explains why many left-of-centre groups of a generation or two ago detested gay-rights advocates with a disdain, if not an expressed vocality, that was matched on the political right. Homosexuality was seen as a sign of decadence, just like owning a Rolls-Royce or a fur-lined kimono).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the business community’s road to Damascus – or, at least, their road to church – over the issue. Once governments passed legislation banning companies and governments from firing gays and lesbians for being gay, marketers discovered something. The first out of the closet were gays in professional industries, who were making good money, as were a lot of people who were/are gay-positive. High disposable income? Well educated? Having expensive or at least semi-expensive tastes? And loyal to brands that were gay-friendly and willing to punish gay-unfriendly companies with their pocketbooks as well as their poison pens of protest? You’re talking about a marketing agent’s dream.
This is why a lot of business leaders and people on the political right in small-town Canada were surprised when urban politicians and businesses started to started to accept gays, lesbians and bisexuals as their economic and social equals. Politicians who made their bread and butter on gay-bashing found that their audience – and their political donors – had tuned them out. Anyone heard from Roseanne Skoke recently? Or the Wild Rose Alliance politician who, in the Alberta election before last, blathered how gay people would end up in a ‘lake of fire’ by a vengeful God? In this age, campaigning on family values is as quaint and useless as campaigning to bring back the Avro Arrow or to nationalize the CPR.
But that’s also why it’s easier for a white-collar worker or a professional – say, a doctor, interior designer, civil servant – to be be gay and out than a blue collar worker or someone working in a non-unionized workplace (the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour has been pretty gay-positive in the past 10 to 15 years, and almost all unionized contracts have harassment policies). It’s probably also why it’s a lot easier for a young adult to come out when he/she is attending university than, say, technical schools such as Sask PolyTech.
Contrast this with what happened to the German Jewish community after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. The first things the Nazi-dominated Reichstag did was to restrict Jews from participating in the economic system: Jews couldn’t work in the civil service, hold high paying jobs, own land or houses, and so on and so forth. If you want to push people to the economic margins, the first thing you do is to take away their ability to make an income. Once Jews were removed from the German economy, they became out of sight, out of mind. That’s why, eight or 10 years after Hitler became Der Fuhrer, the discussion regarding the Final Solution in German business and political circles was ‘how can we make money on supplying the government with what it needs to accomplish this?,’ not ‘what in God’s name is this government doing to fellow Germans – fellow human beings – in our name?’
And yet, take a look who’s at the bottom of the North American economic ladder, and look at what’s happening to them today.
That’s the dilemma the gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans community faces. Let’s be honest: the old way of homophobia was no way to live, not for those identifying with the pink triangle, and not for everyone else. A real free society allows the judgment of people by the shape of their character, not by the color of their skin or their choice in gender of their sexual partner, or any other phoney-baloney method made to categorize people.
Our ability to defend our rights depends on how much other people are willing to help defend them. The people at the top end of our economic scale appear to have the feeling that the usual legal customs such as The Charter of Rights and Freedoms doesn’t really apply to them, because they can buy their way out of trouble – call a few lawyers or a politician or two, and you can solve most problems. People at the other end of the scale need things such as the Charter in order to guarantee their human rights – they can’t depend on a government or a private sector that doesn’t have their best interest at heart and sees them only as either a revenue source or a societal cost.
In a perfect world, the societal sea-change from homophobia to acceptance should serve as a template for others who have traditionally faced discrimination – women, immigrants, the black and Latino communities in the United States and aboriginal peoples in western Canada. But Madison Avenue marketing played a large role in our society’s defeat of homophobia: the Briarpatch bloggers show how advertisers are restricting the debate over what constitutes gay pride. And it’s too much to ask that Madison Avenue again lead the way in the social and political acceptance of other groups of people who have been pushed to the wrong end of the economic scale.

Author: Stephen LaRose

2006 winner of the Canadian Association of University Teachers's Award of Excellence in Journalism for a bunch of prairie dog stuff. Invited into the best homes in Regina. Once.

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