Canadian Alliance leadership candidate Tom Long stroked by the gay community just days before Pride Day? Who would have thought?
But here I am in the Barclay Room of the Intercontinental Hotel on Bloor West surrounded by gay men in nicely cut jackets and leather shoes, and yuppie lesbian couples, all of whom have been invited here to show their support for Long.
Why? Because, honey, homos are the deepest wedge issue in this party -- one of the few topics that has drawn bitter exchanges between Long and Stockwell Day. While everybody in the Alliance agrees that they have to kick out the Liberals and give the rich a tax break, the fur flies when it comes to gays and lesbians. Queers are the issue the party can't shake hands on, and its failure to do so will continue to haunt it no matter who comes out on top in the leadership ballot this Saturday.
Given Day's penchant for hot-button social conservative issues, Long and his gay acolytes will have serious reservations about going on if the former Alberta treasurer wins.
And it's pretty clear that Stockwell Day's Christian fundamentalist supporters couldn't live with them. Day and the rural Bible thumpers for whom gays are a symbol of the deterioration of society will say adios if Long wins -- or even, perhaps, if an increasingly moderate Preston Manning stays on top.
What an irony -- the party of the Christian right and the fiscal conservatives brought to its knees because of a fratricidal war over the influential homos within.
Inside the dark, wood-panelled Barclay Room there's a baby grand piano gently playing and the tea lights are twinkling on the tables. The booze is free and the hors d'oeuvres are plentiful.
Two of Tom Long's key organizers, Jamie Watt and George Marsland, are hosting the intimate affair in honour of their man.
Corporate view The tab for the evening is being picked up by Marsland's employer -- Aurora-based auto parts giant Magna International, which is backing Long but has money on Preston Manning, too. Marsland is a Magna executive and executive director of the Fair Enterprise Institute, which spreads Magna chief Frank Stronach's union-free, corporate view.
Marsland and Long have known each other since law school at the University of Western Ontario, where they ran the campus Progressive Conservative association. They later served in Brian Mulroney's prime minister's office together.
If the Mulroney connection and the big Toronto money aren't enough to make a western social conservative blow his Stetson, maybe this will: Marsland is gay. And, if you didn't already know, so is Watt, the former Mike Harris aide.
A National Post story recently dismissed gay conservatives in Canada as "a shadowy presence in our public life." Maybe 25 years ago. Today, gaycons like Marsland and Watt are putting their stamp on the conservative movement in Canada -- much more so than their queer brothers and sisters in the U.S., who toil farther from the heartbeat of power.
And their presence ensures that Stockwell Day's followers will never find peace in Ontario. The bitterness of this campaign alone makes that clear.
Social conservatives supporting Day have not missed the opportunity to point out that some of Long's key people are homos. The anti-abortion Campaign Life Web site, for example, proclaims that a "Tom Long win would be an Alliance disaster."
The site complains that the Harris government, of which Long was a major architect, has ignored social conservatives and reveals that Watt, "a self-proclaimed homosexual, is a prominent gay activist and no friend of pro-lifers." The site also identifies another Long organizer, Stewart Braddick, as a "self-proclaimed homosexual," not a good thing to do, since Braddick was not really out.
Marsland put up the airfare so Braddick could go home and tell his parents before they heard it through the grapevine.
The Long camp didn't back off. They grabbed the issue, and suddenly Tom Long is the moderate -- inclusive, not exclusive. A tax-cutter, not a bigot.
Cocktail party And that's what this cocktail party is trying to capitalize on. Watt and Marsland put the word out to their gay and lesbian friends that they were hosting an evening to pat their man on the back for his stand and hopefully sell a few Alliance memberships.
About a hundred people show up. Many of these folks are probably more comfortable operating a spreadsheet than marching in the Pride parade in their Calvins.
"We're here tonight to stand with someone who stands with us on the issues that matter," Watt says, introducing Long. "A strong, economically dynamic Canada that makes room at the table for everyone, regardless of where they come from... and regardless of who they choose to love."
Long takes a moment to touch on the gay issue before launching into his usual stump speech on tax cuts and the bloated Liberals.
"I must tell you I was outraged by the treatment that I saw," he says of the gaybaiting of some of his organizers by Day supporters. "And I felt as though I had to say something about it. I felt strongly that we had to make a stand and make it clear that this party is open."
But how open is it going to be if Day wins?
Disparate groups One man, who says he's talked to gays and lesbians who have joined the Alliance on the condition that Long becomes leader, asks the candidate how he intends to bring together these disparate groups.
Long says they have to find common ground around the economic issues -- lower taxes, less government.
"If we run a campaign on abortion and capital punishment and imposing our moral views on other people, we're going to lose," he says. "We're going to look at a Liberal landslide."
I catch up with Marsland on the patio of the Bloor Street Diner. As the Friday-afternoon rush-hour traffic buzzes by on Bay Street, we chat over a couple of pints.
He's casually clad in a golf shirt and dress pants. His sunglasses are perched on his closely cropped, greying hair.
Marsland exudes the confidence of someone who is tapped into the considerable wealth of Magna.
He talks the neo-con talk, and it's apparent that, like Stronach, he doesn't think much of organized labour or lefty politics.
"I object to someone who says that because I'm gay I should be on the left," he protests.
On gay issues, however, he's a sharp activist who thinks strategically.
Despite his true-blue ties, he supported openly gay Liberal MPP George Smitherman in the last provincial election and even voted Liberal. He says it was important to have an openly gay person in the legislature.
Around 1994, Marsland and Watt and a number of other gay conservatives formed the Canadian Human Rights Campaign, a political action committee that raised money and lobbied for gay equality legislation. The group had some early success advocating for sexual orientation to be included as a category in the Liberals' hate crimes law.
Feel uncomfortable I ask him how he can feel comfortable sitting at the table with the Reform party given everything they've expressed over the past decade, including that it's OK to put gays at the back of the shop if they make customers feel uncomfortable.
"There are certain people in the Reform party and certain elements in Reform that I'm not completely happy with," he admits. He's hoping to change the party from within. But will he stay on if Long loses?
"I've met Stockwell and spoken to him a couple of times," he says. "I would have some great difficulties if he won." (Later, Marsland calls me back to revise his emphasis. "I couldn't stick around" if Day wins.)
If Long wins, it's likely that he will attempt to freeze out the social conservative agenda in the Alliance, the way Harris has dealt with his so-called family values caucus.
Coming around The Ontario premier's coming around to the gay cause has been credited, in part, to Watt, who, for example, worked quietly to dissuade Harris from using the notwithstanding clause to challenge a Supreme Court of Canada decision that said the opposite-sex definition of spouse in the province's Family Law Act is unconstitutional.
As well, earlier this year the Harris government passed an omnibus bill that amended 67 pieces of legislation extending equal protections in all areas to same-sex partners. The province's human rights code was also amended to protect same-sex partnership status.
"Jamie did a lot of work behind the scenes to build comfort on those things," Marsland says. "Sixty-seven pieces of amending legislation were passed without a whimper. No muss. No fuss. That's an accomplishment."
If the thought of Mike Harris huddling with some queers over a gay lib agenda shocks and surprises, consider the impact of Harris's choice of gay former provincial Tory minister Keith Norton as human rights commissioner.
It was Norton who recommended the 67 amendments to the Tories.
Even though he holds a sensitive position and doesn't openly support any political party these days, Norton agrees to be interviewed for this piece. We meet in his office on the eighth floor of the commission's offices on Dundas. Adopting the air of a wise elder statesman, Norton calls the social conservatives' attacks on the Long camp "appalling." But he recognizes that Long loses support from Reformers by being moderate on issues like sexual orientation.
"I don't know what the cement would be that would keep them together," Norton says of the Alliance. "Fiscal conservatism might be helpful. But a lot of them aren't there for primarily fiscal reasons."
Norton says he considers himself a fiscal conservative who's socially progressive. He's often on the social conservatives' complaint list.
While Watt and Marsland fool around with the Alliance, long-time gay Tories who share Norton's brand of conservatism are not about to cross over to a movement that has repeatedly shown intolerance.
One of them is Randall Pearce, a gay man who has worked as the director of communications for the PC party in Ottawa and campaigned for former Tory MPPs including Susan Fish and Norton.
Greatest threat "I see the Canadian Alliance as the greatest threat to the equality of gay men and lesbians that we're likely to face in our lifetimes," says Pearce, the federal PC candidate next election in Toronto Centre-Rosedale, which includes the Church-Wellesley gay village.
Pearce was also one of the co-founders of the Canadian Human Rights Campaign with Watt and Marsland.
The federal candidate says he's had mixed feelings about the politics of his provincial Tory cousins, many of whom are now supporting the Alliance.
The Harris Tories got under his skin when they ran a radio ad in the Victoria-Haliburton by-election in 1994 that questioned why the NDP was preoccupied with pushing same-sex law when the real problem facing Ontarians was jobs.
He and Watt later met with Harris and told him to back off.
"Jamie and I went in and expressed our displeasure and asked that he not campaign on our backs again," he recalls. "And Mr. Harris made a commitment to us that he would not do that."
While Pearce says, "Guys like Jamie and George are big boys and they can take responsibility for their actions," he's troubled by some of the young gay conservatives who have been lured to the Alliance.
"I can only hope they'll think about these things again and reflect on their experience over there and and come back and join us."
There are those in the federal PC party who believe the retrograde views of some in the Alliance could be a boon to the struggling Conservative party. That's the message Tory strategist David Small has been putting in Joe Clark's ear.
Small believes the national party should clearly embrace gay equality issues and drive a wedge between itself and the Alliance on tolerance. "I'm telling (Clark) to go for it," Small says, sitting across from me over lunch in the Sutton Place Hotel. "I want him to make it a party position."
Small, who is gay, grew up in a staunch Tory household in Barrie. "I knew more about politics than I did about my sexual identity for a long time," he says.
Besides being a long-time Clark supporter, Small ran unsuccessfully for the provincial Tories in 1985 and ran Jean Charest's leadership bid in 1993.
Helping minister These days, when he's not advising Clark, he's helping Harris education minister Janet Ecker spin her message on teacher testing. He also consults for big tobacco in Ottawa, helping cigarette packagers put together briefs for parliamentary committees and line up media interviews.
Try as they may, it's naive for Long and his supporters to think they can transform the Alliance into an all-inclusive national party, Small argues. And he doesn't see Watt and Marsland sticking it out if Long loses.
"Would you sit at a table where you knew you were held in such low regard, based on the public comments they were throwing around about your own lifestyle?" he asks. "You wouldn't. No self-respecting person would."
Supporting his pitch that the PC party has to claim gays as its own, he points to the polling data on same-sex issues, where opinions tend to break between urban and rural and younger and older voters.
"I say to the Tories, what side do you want to be on?" he says. "Where's the future?"
HARRIS FOR HOMOS?
Personally assures activists that the Tories won't campaign on the backs of gays and lesbians.
Has an openly gay campaign aide, Jamie Watt
Appoints Keith Norton, who's openly gay, to chief commissioner's post at the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Shuns his so-called family values caucus.
Has maintained funding for AIDS community support and prevention.
After opposing it in the lower courts, respects the Supreme Court of Canada's M vs H decision, which rules that the opposite-sex definition of spouse in the Family Law Act is unconstitutional.
Passes an omnibus bill amending 67 pieces of legislation, extending equal protections to same-sex partners.
Amends human rights code to protect "same-sex partnership status."