On election night in the Vancouverarea riding of Burnaby-Kingsway, the newly re-elected MP, New Democrat Svend Robinson, acknowledged a thunderous ovation from 400 supporters and declared, “I share this victory with my brothers and sisters, with lesbians and gay men across this land.” Robinson’s election in the ethnically diverse working-class party stronghold marked the first time that a publicly declared homosexual had been elected to Parliament. The development came at a time when Canada’s estimated 2.5 million homosexuals have become increasingly vocal and, according to the annual Maclean ’s/Decima poll, when Canadians are in a mood to accept homosexuals in politics or at work. But there were reservations among the 1,500 respondents about homosexuals in three professions: teaching, medicine and dentistry.
On the political front, respondents were asked what they would do if they found out that a senior politician in their party was a homosexual. Fully 76 per cent said that they would “leave things as they are,” 12 per cent said that they would work to remove the politician, and 10 per cent said that they would join another party. As for discovering that an employee was a homosexual, 82 per cent said that they would leave things as they were. Typical of such respondents was Carol Ferguson, 44, who owns a catering business in Parry Sound, Ont., and has two adopted children, aged 14 and 18. She told Maclean’s in a follow-up interview that she considers herself to be tolerant of homosexuals. “I feel that it is their life,” declared Ferguson. “They don’t tell me how to live my life, and I don’t tell them how to live theirs. Who am I to judge?”
A significant minority of poll respondents, however, did express concern about homosexuals who teach their children or serve as their doctors or dentists. Thirty-five per cent of those polled said that if they discovered their child’s teacher was a homosexual, they would either try to remove the teacher or move their child to another class. An even larger number—44 per cent—claimed that they would take similar action if their doctor or dentist were a homosexual. But in all three instances, more of those respondents said that they would opt for a more moderate course rather than seeking removal of the professional: 19 per cent would move their child to another class, and 39 per cent would change their doctor or dentist.
Experts said that they were not surprised by the results of the poll. Richard Burzynski, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian AIDS Society, said that because AIDS has become closely linked with the homosexual community—despite its increasing spread to intravenous drug users—there is a tangible rise in discrimination against homosexuals. For his part, Toronto lawyer Peter Maloney, who has a very large homosexual clientele, believes that many people use AIDS to justify their irrational prejudices. Said Maloney: “More people rationalize their feelings by talking about AIDS, because it’s no longer acceptable to talk in negative stereotypical images.”
Still, in the follow-up interviews, many poll respondents cited AIDS—especially in the area of health care—as the reason for their fears. Respondent Katherine Reed, a 25-year-old retail manager in Halifax, told Maclean ’s that she would be concerned about having a homosexual doctor or dentist. Said Reed: “I wouldn’t want a homosexual doctor or dentist for the obvious reason that they have closer contact with your body and bodily fluids during an examination.”
But in all other respects, she added, she is open-minded about different lifestyles. Dedared Reed: “Who you prefer to have as your lover is your choice.”
Karl Hartig agreed with many poll respondents. Hartig teaches technical and vocational subjects to students in grades 11 and 12 in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park and says that he sees no harm in having a homosexual teacher in the classroom. “As long as he sticks to his teaching, there’s no problem,” said the father of six. But Hartig voiced concerns about homosexual health care workers. Added Hartig: “I would change my doctor or dentist because I am in intimate physical contact with him.”
SOME SAY THAT GAYS AND LESBIANS HELPED THEIR CAUSE WITH PUBLICITY
In general, answers to the questions on homosexuality differed notably according to age of the respondents. Older respondents— especially those 65 and over—voiced a greater measure of concern about homosexuality. Only 41 per cent of those over 65 said that they would not take any action against a homosexual teacher, compared with 72 per cent between the ages of 40 and 44, and 71 per cent of the 30to 34-year-olds. Similar findings emerged on the question of a homosexual employee: 32 per cent of those 65 and older said that they would replace the person, compared with only 10 per cent of respondents between the ages of 30 and 34.
Concern also appeared to be directly linked with the respondents’ education. Of those with university education, 71 per cent said that they had no significant concerns about a homosexual teacher, compared with 54 per cent with some high-school education and only 43 per cent of respondents with elementary school. Similarly, 87 per cent of the postsecondary group said that they would do nothing if they discovered that an employee was homosexual, compared with 65 per cent of respondents with an elementary-school education.
Attitudes about homosexuality also varied according to the gender and political affiliation of the respondents. Sixty-four per cent of female respondents said that they would continue to go to a homosexual doctor or dentist, compared with only 48 per cent of men polled. Similarly, 82 per cent of women said that they would continue to support a party in which a senior politician was homosexual, compared with 71 per cent of men. Of those who said that they identified with the NDP, 83 per cent said that a homosexual politician would not change their support for their party, compared with 72 per cent of Conservatives and 78 per cent of Liberals.
New Democrat Robinson received the backing of leader Edward Broadbent after Feb. 29, when he publicly declared that he is a homosexual. As a result, Robinson—who was a grand marshal on Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in Toronto in June—has given homosexual-rights activists their first high-profile political representation. And Robinson, 36, does not appear to have suffered for his admission. Indeed, in the Nov. 21 election, he' beat Conservative John Bitonti by a comfortable margin of more than 7,000 votes.
Toronto lawyer Maloney notes that the growth of a strong homosexual community in Canada since the early 1970s has forced families and friends of homosexuals to become
more accepting and supportive. As a result, added Maloney, the younger generation sees homosexuality as little more than an alternative lifestyle. “They just don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he said.
Still, respondent Ferguson recalls the difficulty of trying to explain to her son, then 10 years old, why two men walking down the street were holding hands. “I just told him that they were friends,” said Ferguson. “He said, ‘They’re not supposed to hold hands, are they?’ I told him that is the way they live and that is the way they feel.”
But other respondents said that it was homosexual behavior and the lifestyle itself—rather than a fear about AIDS—that were the greatest concerns. Respondent Conrad Eliason, a rapeseed farmer in Wadena, central Saskatchewan, said that he would not try to get a homosexual teacher transferred but he would move his child out of the class. “It hinges on the rolemodel concept of the teacher,” said the father of three. “And I would question a homosexual teacher as a role model.”
The presence of homosexuals in the church was also a concern for some poll respondents. On Aug. 24, 388 delegates to a United Church convention voted by a significant majority that homosexuals could be considered for the ministry, following the release of a committee report that said homosexuality should not be a barrier to any aspect of church life. The ensuing debate was emotional and divisive, with several groups splitting from the church in opposition to the recommendation. “Ministers should be upright and holy and they should not take part in these sorts of practices,” said poll respondent Gordon Millar, 19, a security-alarm monitor who belongs to the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada in Carp, Ont. “If I found out my minister was gay, I would take it to the board and I would hope they would ask him to resign.”
Still, sociologist Merrijoy Kelner, a professor of behavorial science at the University of Toronto who is studying the impact of AIDS on society, says that homosexuals have gone a long way in publicizing their cause. Kelner notes that, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association recategorized homosexuality from a mental illness to an alternative lifestyle. Added Kelner: “AIDS is causing anxiety, but the homosexual community is really making strides.”
But others, like the Canadian AIDS Society’s Burzynski, feel that the homosexual community’s movement forward is severely hampered by the limitations of the social structure. Burzynski criticizes the schools for teaching children solely about heterosexual relationships, and he points out that homosexuals are not protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “When you have a whole structure that says it’s wrong, that translates into how we look at life,” said Burzynski. “There has to be a better understanding and better acceptance.” Still, as the poll results clearly indicate, a significant majority of Canadians already appear to share that view.
NORA UNDERWOOD with SCOTT STEELE, BRIAN BETHUNE and SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER in Toronto
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