When the 2012 Alberta Provincial Election was first called, I swore to myself and those I held dear that I would not discuss politics or the election online, except to share articles by others that I found interesting, intriguing, or informative. Last year, I helped organize Edmonton SlutWalk, and it made me a little gunshy. As essential a responsibility as I believe it is to raise your voice, speak up, or initiate action on issues you care about without regrets, doing so can also invite a whole lot of emotional anguish, anxiety, and negativity into your life. And I’ve had way too much of that going on in my life for way too long on a whole host of different fronts. It’s one of the reasons I will not be on the organizing committee for SlutWalk again this year. I just couldn’t take any more, even if — as they say — “it’s just Twitter”. I’ve watched amicable though heated political sparring in social media nearly or actually destroy friendships in a matter of days, and I didn’t want to go there again for the sake of my own mental and emotional well-being.
I admire people who truly don’t give a fuck, who are able to let all the horrible things people will say and do to them roll off their backs when they speak up on something they know will be a shitstorm in some way, shape or form without completely freaking out inside their own heads and wanting to hide in their bedroom for a marathon session of TV on DVD with their phone turned off. I wish I could be more like them. But I’m not one of them. When I’ve had a nasty convo online, when I am exhausted by defending myself and my opinions in conversations with people who have well-argued though contrary views, when I am absolutely ill with poorly spelled and badly grammaticized comments from trolls, shit-disturbers, bear-pokers, and pot-stirrers, I have trouble sleeping at night. The adrenaline of anger and anxiety riddles my brain and compels me to keep refreshing the page.
So this time, I figured, why invite it in? Just lurk all the bloggers and the tweets, and take the discussion to text, e-mail or face-to-face if I feel like having a chat about it with someone. I’ve never really kept my politics a secret and I’m sure my friends already know exactly where my vote isn’t going on April 23rd.
When the conscience rights story hit the news, initiated almost entirely (in my opinion) by Kathleen Smith and KikkiPlanet.com, I sat up and took notice, but what I found fascinating about it as much as the actual issues involved was how this essay by Kathleen acted as a case study for the new power of social media and individual citizens in the political and democratic process. I resisted making any public commentary on the actual issues, because the people who shared my viewpoint and feelings had the situation well in hand, though I read all the comments and all the news articles on it with almost obsessive interest.
I think Wildrose made a mistake to include conscience rights in their policy handbook in the first place, because it’s bad policy. It’s exactly the kind of policy that is tearing our neighbour to the south apart, polarizing their country, making the political landscape more divisive and more angry and more unstable. They have become a country so distracted by fighting the culture wars through their legislation, elected representatives, and houses of government that their economy collapsed. It’s the kind of policy that makes me think “I’m damn glad I live here and not there” every time I read about it. I don’t want to see that happen here. It is not the kind of policy that is compatible with my idea of a visionary, united, and forward-thinking Alberta.
Danielle Smith has since admitted that any attempt to legislate conscience rights for marriage commissioners or health care professionals likely would not stand up to a Charter challenge, and was wise to back away from the issue and commit on the record that her party will not attempt to legislate on “contentious social issues”. I also don’t find it impressive that the members of the parties running against the Wildrose and members of the mainstream media essentially ignored the issue until it was addressed by individual citizens through social media, because it is an important issue that deserved more scrutiny from those with a professional responsibility to introduce discussion about such divisive and socially sensitive policy to the public. They only jumped on the story after ordinary Albertans made clear it warranted further attention. It is unfair to accuse Wildrose of having a “hidden agenda” here, when its stance on conscience rights was right there in their policy handbook for 18 months before anyone bothered to pay attention, much less raise an objection.
That being said, I also find it rather disingenuous of Ms. Smith to now champion the separation of church and state and promise that her party will keep the “personal religious views” of members out of their policy, when those same personal religious views likely informed the party membership’s decision to introduce conscience rights into their policy in the first place.
Which brings me to Allan Hunsperger (Wildrose candidate for Edmonton Southwest), which was the straw that broke this camel’s back. I can lurk in silence no longer. I spent all day Sunday and all day Monday trolling Google and Twitter for new stories and comments on the topic, to the point that I think I overdid it a little. And like the uncontrollable urge to vomit to purge excessive levels of alcohol from the body, I now feel the need to expel this overdose of political discourse from my mind. By now I’m sure we’ve all read the blog post where Hunsperger states that gays and lesbians will burn in hell for all eternity. He also criticized the Edmonton Public School Board, implying their tolerance policy is irresponsible and dangerous. I’m assuming that’s because he fears for the safety and integrity of LGBTQ students’ eternal souls if they aren’t bullied straight by those who hate and fear them.
Obviously, I have my own personal views about Hunsperger’s words and ideas. I find them repugnant, and entirely unreflective of someone I want to see in public office representing Albertans, regardless of whether those ideas will influence his party’s official policy. My mother, who passed away two years ago, was a member of Alberta’s LGBTQ community. She hid that fact from her colleagues, her family, and many of her friends outside the LGBTQ community until after she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I believe her position as the managing editor of a well-respected and award-winning Alberta community newspaper influenced her decision to do so. She had to deal on a daily basis with politicians who likely held personal religious views in line with Hunsperger’s (though perhaps expressed less zealously) during her 25-year tenure as a journalist, and I believe she didn’t want her status as a lesbian to affect her professional credibility in the eyes of those elected to serve the constituencies covered by her newsroom. She never said this to me. It is an inference I have made based on my own process of coming to terms with why she lied by omission for so many years about a fundamental part of who she was and a fundamental relationship in her life. And when I think about the anguish and guilt she must have felt every single day as that lie of omission ate away at her insides, it breaks my heart.
I’m just going to come out and say it. There has been an underlying homophobia in this province’s politics and among this province’s politicians for years, as far back as I can remember politics being on my radar. I came of age in the 90s, the era of gay rights revolution. The era of “We’re Here. We’re Queer. Get Used To It.” I was never raised to believe one way or another whether homosexuality is right or wrong. I didn’t grow up in a religious household where the personal religious views of my parents affected my view on it. In fact, I turned 12 two weeks before 1989 became 1990, and largely I made up my own mind on the subject. As gay rights issues became more prominent in the public conversation, and I grew older and became more interested in this conversation, I decided for myself that I could indeed get used to it. Gay was good with me.
I remember when the Klein government toyed with the idea of invoking the Notwithstanding Clause on same-sex marriage. In fact, these statements from Ralph Klein in 2005 after declining to do so indicate he was also a proponent of conscience rights. I find it rather disingenuous of Ms. Redford to categorize Wildrose’s stance as “frightening” when she has been campaigning on her party’s legacy of good governance a lot through this election, and has been evasive about her own candidate’s efforts to legislate conscience rights and opposition to same-sex marriage in the past. The sad fact is that we live in a province where homophobia in our politicians is tolerated. We’ve told them that time and time again when we keep electing them.
I’m not saying that people of faith shouldn’t run for public office. I’m also not saying that politicians don’t have the right to their personal religious views (including anti-gay ones). But I do believe it is time for Albertans who are serious about upholding a society, a government, and a culture of tolerance and equality to stop putting openly homophobic politicians in office just because we like other aspects of their party’s platform or their party’s leader, or share other aspects of their conservative values. The lurking undercurrent of homophobia in our political arena and the perception that Albertans are “intolerant rednecks” and “the Texas of Canada” will not end until that happens, and neither will the sense of intimidation felt by LGBTQ Albertans knowing that among those elected to represent them are some who hate them, fear them, and might desire to infringe upon their equal rights using the power of their office if they step out of line. It won’t end until everyone who believes in equality steps up and says “I will not give my vote to a known homophobe under any banner. I will not support a known homophobe as a candidate for my party. I will not support a candidate who posts anti-gay rants in a public forum as a private citizen, even if they promise not to legislate their morality. I will not support a party who runs known homophobes as candidates.” We do not have to separate Hunsperger the politician from Hunsperger the anti-gay evangelical in our minds when we cast our ballots on April 23 simply because it is his constitutional right to be a homophobic zealot in his private life. We can just say no.
It doesn’t really bother me so much that Hunsperger’s personal religious view has my mother’s soul burning in an eternal lake of fire right now. I’m an agnostic, so I don’t actually believe the lake of fire exists, but either way I’m sure my mother’s soul is fine. He has his view and I have mine. It doesn’t even really bother me that he wrote the post in the first place as a pastor for an evangelical church, as repugnant as I find his statements, because as Danielle Smith so eloquently pointed out, it is not surprising that a pastor in an evangelical church would hold such views. What bothers me is, based on the tone of the post and the way he expressed those views, I am still not convinced Hunsperger will be able to separate them from his responsibility to the people of Edmonton Southwest when he is shaping and voting on policy under a Wildrose government, despite Ms. Smith’s protests to the contrary. It bothers me that he characterizes an expression of his personal religious views not as a judgment but as “simply stating a fact”. It is up to the constituents of Edmonton Southwest now to decide if they want the same man who wrote that blog post to represent them in the Legislature. Speaking from my heart, I sincerely hope they do not.