(Illustration by Joyita Sengupta)
LGBTQ community leaders say Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is alienating people all across the city, not just downtown, by choosing not to attend World Pride festivities.
After telling reporters last Friday that he doesn’t plan to ever attend a Pride parade or event, Ford asked for the rainbow Pride flag raised at City Hall to be taken down. The flag was raised to coincide with the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in order to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Russia in response to anti-gay laws enforced by the President Valdimir Putin’s administration.
Ford’s request to have the flag pulled down was rejected.
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly and and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam released a joint statement in support of the rainbow flag raising.
“In light of our commitment of being an open and diverse city, we must display our pride to the international community,” the statement says. “We must remind those who look to Toronto for leadership that LGBTQ communities should be free of discrimination and be able to enjoy the same freedoms and human rights as others.”
According to the Toronto Star, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has accused Rob Ford of “hate-baiting” suggesting that he is looking to appeal to specific demographics.
Terrence Rodriguez founded REX Pride, a group that meets at the Rexdale Hub Community Centre. REX Pride helps facilitate conversation as well as a safe space for local youth who are identify as LGBTQ or are questioning. He says there are challenges for queer youth in the area specific to where they live.
“With the demographic in Rexdale primarily being newcomers and the immigration that has entered the area, the cultures aren’t very supportive of homosexuality,” says Rodriguez. “So, that has had a huge effect and it’s kind of like being torn between two worlds.”
Rodriguez grew up in the Rexdale area and came out as female-to-male transgendered when he was attending high school at Kipling Collegiate Institute. He recalled being asked by the vice-principal at the time to “keep his lifestyle at home.”
The mayor has a long history with Rexdale, living in the area as well as being the councillor of Ward 2-Etobicoke North. A video was recently released of him uttering profanity in Jamaican Patois at a local fast-food restaurant, Steak Queen, less than five kilometres from where REX Pride meets.
Rodriguez says there are currently around 15 youth members of REX Pride who the mayor is not representing.
“When you’re hurt and you’re fearful, you’ll look for support anywhere you can. When you see the leader of the city you live in doesn’t support you, how can you feel protected?”
Another neighbourhood where Ford has traditionally had a strong following is Scarborough. Danny Firestone runs a similar group out of East Metro Youth Services where he helps young people in the Scarborough area. He says there are not enough safe spaces for them to talk openly about their sexuality.
“There are very few places in Scarborough where they can gather and be comfortable,” says Firestone. “Scarborough is very diverse but has a lot of separation. You’re either part of this community or that community.”
This isn’t the first time Rob Ford has come under fire for appearing intolerant of LGBTQ people. During a council debate on HIV/AIDS prevention in June of 2006, according to a National Post transcript, Ford said, “If you’re not doing needles and you’re not gay, you won’t get AIDS probably.”
The mayor has not attended a Pride parade or any other sort of pride festivity, saying that he has an annual trip to the cottage with family that weekend. This year Toronto is hosting World Pride.
Firestone is concerned that by taking a stance against queer issues, Ford’s behaviour is encouraging homophobic people.
“When you see someone like Rob Ford talking the way that he’s talking and being so unfriendly to the gay community, it promotes that mentality. Why do I have to be accepting if the leaders aren’t that way? ” Firestone says. “You want your leaders to challenge people to be more progressive, not be backwards.”