Queeruption at Ford Fest

A man grabs a sign from an activist's hands and the crowd goes wild. The word “faggot” finally flies.

There are people who cry when they encounter Rob Ford. Out of happiness.

For some, his presence triggers a gush of emotion, as though they have come face to face with something overwhelming and profound that non-believers could never understand.

This is often termed a “rock-star” reception, including by the Fords themselves – but, with few exceptions, it’s difficult to name a musician whose mere proximity regularly elicits such responses from fans over the age of 25. Ford is, if anything, more of a religious figure around whom his fans’ cosmology revolves.

At Ford Fest on Friday, July 25, ensconced in a white tent and granting an audience to those who lined up for hours in Scarborough’s Thomson Memorial Park, Ford is not so much the king of Ford Nation as its pope. He offers straightforward answers to difficult questions, not knowing or caring about facts. To contrast what he says with observable reality is to miss the point: for him and his followers, truth is derived from conviction.

His adherents’ collective certitude has never seemed more coherent than it does here. They know what they stand for and are prepared to defend it, not intellectually but through passion.

Marginalized mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, desperate for attention and with little to lose, trots in atop a horse. She’s met by thunderous boos one woman calls her a “stupid bitch.” Her small entourage of red-clad supporters look like Star Trek extras ready to be picked off.

“It actually wasn’t as bad as I was expecting,” Thomson says later. “Nobody fought us, nobody threw anything hard at the horse.”

More than most, she’s aware of the dark side of Ford Nation, where anger is channelled into devotion and then back out as anger again. She accused the mayor of being high on drugs and sexually assaulting her at a time when such a charge was somewhat less plausible. And for that she faced the particular kind of wrath in which misogyny intersects with zealotry.

The Queeruption folks, however, aren’t prepared for the worst-case scenario. The half-dozen activists, who arrive after Thomson has left, wear rainbow leis and carry signs on colourful paper: “Don’t Drink The Kool-Aid,” “Ford #1 Hater,” etc.

The Ford Nationals are amped up. “Ford! Ford! Ford! Ford!” A few dozen gradually congregate around the protesters and attempt to drown out their interviews with the media by shouting pro-Ford slogans.

When Iola Fortino – an anti-gay activist who two weeks earlier called Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam a “fucking faggot” at City Hall – steps in, the implicit becomes explicit.

“When Ford does not attend WorldPride, which is equivalent to Sodom and Gomorrah, he is speaking for the silent majority!” she proclaims. “He’s not for the homos! He’s for families!”

The crowd roars, and some among them give her high-fives. If homophobia was previously the undercurrent, it’s now the electric charge. Bigoted taunts join the “FORD NATION!” growls.

“Do you discriminate against other phobias?” a man keeps yelling from the side, apparently thinking he’s on to some grand hypocrisy.

“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” shouts another. He will later repeat it as though it means something.

Louder and louder they grow, the mob mentality taking hold. While there are a few like Fortino who might act this way on their own, it’s doubtful most would. You can see them gaining power and licence from each other.

“Go home! Go home! Go home!”

In 2012, a different group of queer activists contemplated a similar intervention at Ford Fest, which that year was held in the Ford family’s Etobicoke backyard. Once they arrived, they had second thoughts, sensing it wouldn’t be a safe space for a visible action.

This time the activists hold their ground against the horde. One keeps arguing through a megaphone. Their leader, Poe Liberado, keeps doing interviews with the media.

After a 10-minute buildup, the confrontation turns physical when a man grabs a sign from an activist’s hands and tears it to pieces. The crowd goes wild.

The word “faggot” finally emerges, from Ron Banerjee, best known for conducting anti-Muslim activism under the banner of a “group” called Canadian Hindu Advocacy.

One protester is shoved, prompting elderly veteran, Ford fan and current Ward 18 candidate Jim McMillan to jump to his aid, weeping at the outburst of violence. “You don’t do that! We’re Rob Ford people! We don’t do that!” he pleads in a quivering voice.

Cameras capture Banerjee putting his hand around the neck of an older man draped in a rainbow flag.

The tide rises and falls as Skip Tracer, the Ford Fest house band, make their way through Sweet Caroline and You Sexy Thing. Eventually, police step in to extract the Queeruption protesters and escort them away from the mob.

“That went a lot more violently than I thought would happen,” Liberado says shortly afterward. “We were not expecting people to physically harm us. We thought, ‘Sure, maybe people [will] be miffed to have LGBTQ people around.'”

But nothing like this.

Asked how familiar she was with Ford Fest, she says, “Well, to be candid, this is my first rodeo. I’m an out and proud person and an LGBTQ community organizer. These people do not scare me, and they are not gonna start scaring me now. So I’m not leaving until I want to.”

Staying is a matter of principle.

But so it is, too, for Ford’s disciples at large, people cast aside in their own ways who have finally found a symbol from which to draw power. Even when he’s no longer mayor, they will still love him.

And because he is no longer mayor, they will be more enraged than ever.

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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