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fab guy Jack Layton

The gay community loses a true friend

08.22.2011


Most Canadians, and certainly all gay Canadians, were shocked and saddened to hear the news of Jack Layton's death. Jack (and all of us think of him as "Jack," which is just one example of the way he connected with people) was a fixture in the gay community. I ran into him at many events and he always marched in the Pride parade. Way back in 2004 he was the cover story (posted below) in fab and posed good-humouredly with his wife, Olivia Chow, and a hunky mountie. As recently as issue #356 Jack was a fab guy. And that rather sums it up: Jack was a fab guy.


(from fab #236, published Feb 26, 2004)
He raised money for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's XXX Auction and attended same-sex wedding services at the Metropolitan Community Church. He fought hard for AIDS education and anonymous testing - even needle exchanges.
Is he the new hope for queers?

Jack - by Eleanor Brown

The small reception area of the federal New Democratic Party caucus is deserted and I'm trapped alone with the decor and forced to sit on a polka-dotted couch. Even I, a dowdy lesbian, can see there's a problem.

The reception desk in this 10th-floor Ottawa office is purple. When I'm finally noticed and point out the homely white on the walls, an aide mutters that there's no money for frills such as decoration. A small colour TV is permanently tuned to CBC Newsworld and the bookshelf is filled with pamphlets. One dates back to the summer of 2001, a party newsletter calling for the citizenry to fight "to protect Canadian water." Others tout new NDP leader Jack Layton.

After years as an effective leftie in Toronto city politics, Layton won a decisive first-ballot victory in January 2003 to lead the federal NDP. He seems already to have picked up more media coverage than his two predecessors combined. The Liberals are running in fear of the NDP (according to the National Post). Hometown boy Jack Layton, at 53, is the party's new great hope. Perhaps the great hope for gay rights as well. And he knows it.

Back when Buddies in Bad Times was a focal point for playful, sexual licentiousness, Layton volunteered his time as an auctioneer for the (now discontinued) annual XXX fundraisers. A former theatre employee recalls Layton gleefully pulling in the big bucks for a nickel-plated brass butt plug. Layton's wife, Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow, remembers helping by modelling a leather collar. Yet Jack Layton is equally at home at the ecumenical Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT), where he says he attends Sunday services more often than at his home base of Bloor Street United. Layton was even invited to witness the banns in the infamous MCCT double wedding of 2001 that helped launch the successful legal challenge to the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage.

Layton bounds in for our interview smartly decked out in a pressed white shirt and trademark suspenders (these are a gift from his mother, featuring ships with billowing sails) and sporting that lush moustache, the bristles now greying.

I go to shake his hand, but he's expecting a hug. I give him one, and add a quick Québécois buss on the cheek. I remember him as a real charmer, a metrosexual before the term existed, who flirts in a way so filled with affection for people and life itself that I might have flirted back. (When I ask gay NDP colleague Svend Robinson if Layton has ever made eyes at him, Robinson replies: "If he had, I wouldn't tell you.")

Today, Layton's personal wattage is down a notch, but his orange tie more than makes up for it. The politician says his schedule can be hectic - he got up at 3am to catch a flight from Halifax to Toronto for fab's early-morning cover shoot the week before. He's got meetings and media interviews coming out his ears.

Though I've been warned by an aide that I'll have less than an hour, Layton pushes his schedule back a bit for me. He wants to talk.

When Layton married downtown Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow 15 years ago, they set aside a few moments during the ceremony to tell their gay and lesbian guests that they dreamed of a day when same-sex marriage would be legalized.

Last year, when the Canadian Alliance introduced a motion restricting the definition of marriage to boys snogging girls, Layton and his party got to make the grand gay gesture and help ensure its defeat.

"It's a question of human rights," says Layton, sitting at a little round table in his office. "You can't have two statuses. We have a fundamental obligation to make sure discrimination against same-sex couples disappears."


Easy to say. The gay community has been burnt before. Only 10 years ago, an NDP provincial government at Queen's Park introduced a bill on same-sex relationship recognition, which collapsed when leader Bob Rae allowed a free vote and his own MPPs helped kill it. Yorkview New Democrat MPP George Mammoliti (currently a Toronto city councillor) went down in history for his comments during the debate: "I can tell you that when we talk about electric torture, whipping, watersports and scat, fisting, cleaning your toys, what does that say to the community? And if that goes on, do you believe that it's fundamentally acceptable to include the adoption of children? I believe that children pick up from their parents."

The NDP has had a tough slog with the gay community since.

Layton says now that he's in charge of the federal party, there's no debate on some issues. Those MPs who couldn't stomach gay marriage were told to stay away from last year's Alliance-sponsored roll call - and a handful did. Layton says he delivered: "It wasn't a matter of conscience whether people have human rights... No one voted contrary [to the party's position]."

He says tens of thousands joined the party once its pro-gay marriage stance became public.

Layton also favours retroactive gay spousal survivor pensions - the meagre seniors' stipend that people like 76-year-old gay hero George Hislop are fighting for in court. (Hislop was the first out gay man Layton ever met, and Layton says they paired up to fight the popular pastime of beating up faggots at Cherry Beach many years ago.)

Other issues, however, are more complex. Layton spoke out against the police bathhouse raids of 1981. And at a time when city bureaucrats refused to give out business permits to anything that smacked of gay, Layton mischievously argued that bathhouses were places where men bathed - and got the licences issued. But on bawdy house laws (used against the tubs and their patrons), Layton says: "I would consult with the community to find out what they want.

"I normally take my positions in consultation with affected communities. I always want to consult first. I would want a little guidance - they've thought it through."

He's called for the decriminalization of prostitution for years. But what he believes and what the NDP stands for may be different, and he makes the distinction. Party members are reviewing hundreds of pages of old policies and resolutions, figuring out what exists, what contradicts, what they hope to change. A large chunk will be sorted out by the end of the month.

Layton's specialties, he says, are climate change and the environment, homelessness (he's written a book on the topic) and affordable housing. He defers to colleagues on some of the other issues.

British Columbia MP Svend Robinson, a 25-year veteran of politics and the first federal politician to come out while in office, is the point man on gay issues. "I don't think we can expect the leader to be up on details in every possible [policy] area," says Robinson.

The gay MP is quick to say that bawdy house laws should be repealed, and Canada Customs shouldn't be in the business of censoring imports (Vancouver's Little Sister's bookstore is suing the federal agency again, this time because its agents are stopping gay comics at the border). But Robinson won't pronounce immediately on whether the concept of "obscenity" - a long-time gay bugaboo - should be deleted outright from Canada's criminal law. "This is an issue that has not been at all raised."

Layton gave his two out MPs solid jobs: Robinson critiques health and international human rights; Vancouver lesbian Libby Davies has the high-profile job of house leader.

There are only 14 NDP MPs, and Ontario was swept by the Liberals last time around. Layton claims party polling indicates that will change in the next election, expected this year. When predecessor Alexa McDonough first won the NDP leadership, she ran in a Halifax riding - and the party shocked everyone by picking up multiple seats in Nova Scotia. "We went from nowhere to excitement and wins," says Layton. "This is going to happen in Toronto."

Of course, Layton lost when he ran federally in Toronto in 1993, and again in '97. But he wasn't the leader then.

Layton was first elected as Toronto city councillor in 1982, in the ward that includes the Village; he later flubbed a bid for mayor and was briefly left without a job in politics (he also teaches part-time, currently as an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto; he's lectured at Ryerson and York, too, where he picked up an M.A. and a Ph.D.). He then became an East End city councillor, and soon after ran for the federal NDP against Toronto-Danforth Liberal MP Dennis Mills. "In 1997, I had only represented the riding for two and a half years," explains Layton. "Dennis had been there a decade." Layton says he's now made a solid connection with the Riverdale community, and will easily unseat Mills in the next election.

The party hopes to pull in disaffected Liberals, say Layton, and most importantly young people who form a large chunk of non-voters. Voter turnout is on a downward spiral - a return to the polls of even a few thousand in every riding could turn the NDP around.
So could a revivified Conservative Party. The re-election of same-old Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper to the Conservative top spot would encourage many eastern Canadians to avoid the same old bigots. But a fresh unknown, like more moderate Ontario millionaire Belinda Stronach, could result in three-party runoffs that would take votes away from the Liberals and boost the NDP's fortunes.

How does Jack Layton, Leader of the Official Opposition sound?

When you tap Jack Layton, you also get his wife Olivia Chow.

Chow became a school trustee in 1985, the same year that gay librarian Kenn Zeller was murdered in High Park by five high school kids. Chow helped create an anti-homophobia curriculum, just the first in a series of initiatives that has turned her into the darling of the gay community.

The pair met during a fundraising auction for Mount Sinai Hospital, he selling in English, she in Cantonese. A first date followed, then marriage. "We're both political animals - same direction, same passion, same commitment," says Chow.

Their first joint political project - he was chairing the Board of Health - saw them put condoms in high schools.

Layton commutes constantly these days (which might explain the lack of a single book on the wall of shelves in his Ottawa office). Chow, now a downtown city councillor, sticks to Hogtown, saying it's better for the family if hubby does the travelling. Says Chow: "There's me, the two kids, my mom and the cat."

Both Chow and Layton arrived in Toronto in 1970 - she from Hong Kong at 13, he a 20-year-old from the Quebec municipality of Hudson.

His dad was a Tory, but Layton was a Liberal, signing up after then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau infamously declared, "There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Trudeau, later prime minister, was also the last Grit leader to support gay rights on principle, rather than because of a court order.

But in 1970, Trudeau brought in the War Measures Act, citing kidnappings and bombings by a handful of violent Quebec separatists. Basic rights were suspended and hundreds were jailed without trial. Layton recalls that the late, venerable NDP legend Tommy Douglas made a blistering speech against the law. Layton found himself agreeing with Douglas, and moved to the NDP.

Douglas was a preacher and firebrand who became the post-war premier of Saskatchewan and the architect of Canadian Medicare. A white bust of the old paladin, eyeglasses carefully carved out and perched upon his nose, is one of the few signs of self in Layton's tidy office. It sits on a pedestal just beyond his desk.

Layton leans forward and says he believes in "community values" (as opposed to the "family" version of the religious right): Canada is a collection of communities, each valuing the other.

He might become just another politician. But his Toronto track record is solid - he helped bring about anonymous HIV testing, a needle exchange, AIDS education programs and community group funding, to list only a handful of achievements.

As leader of the NDP, he needs the mainstream, certainly, but will he cater to the lowest common denominator to get votes? In-jokes and much-needed initiatives for local minority groups may not translate into electoral success. I ask my final question - "When was the last time you were in a gay bathhouse?" - moments after a PR guy enters the room to get Layton to his next meeting. The PR minder's eyes bug out, and he stutters desperately as he tries to interrupt. But a cool Layton grins and brags about the "Back Jack" tea towels he had made up for a political campaign 11 years ago. They were very popular at the Spa on Maitland.

Eleanor Brown is a Montreal-based writer.

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