Selected articles only.
By Eric Fink
One of the highlights of DSA's national convention in November,
1991, was a public meeting sponsored jointly by DSA's national
Gay - Lesbian - Bisexual Commission and Chicago DSA's own local
Gay - Lesbian - Bisexual Commission. The featured speaker at this
outreach event was Svend Robinson, the only openly gay member
of the Canadian Parliament and a leading spokesperson for the
New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, which is Canada's third
largest political party and its only social democratic party.
During his talk, Robinson outlined some of the major themes in
current les/bi/gay politics in Canada and discussed some recent
advances made by gay and lesbian people under the recently elected
local NDP governments.
As the NDP'S spokesperson for international human rights, Robinson
also stressed the need for the gay, bisexual, and lesbian movements
in more developed nations to support and assist the emerging les/bi/gay
communities in developing nations and the former Soviet bloc.
The NDP was originally founded during the Depression and was
reconstituted in its present form in 1961; like DSA, the NDP is
a member of the Socialist International. In addition to holding
44 out of the 295 seats in the federal parliament, the NDP also
controls provincial governments in Ontario (the largest Canadian
province), Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.
Together, these areas comprise 51% of the total Canadian population.
Women hold a significant number of cabinet positions in these
regional governments and control many of the most powerful portfolios.
The NDP's national leader, Audrey McLaughlin, is the first woman
to head a major political party in North America. Both in opposition
and in government, the NDP has taken a strong feminist stand on
issues of particular concern to women, including abortion rights,
sexual harassment and job discrimination.
Canada's national health system, which many are now holding
up as a model for emulation in the United States, was pioneered
by an NDP government in Saskatchewan, where the party first took
power in 1944. National health care has proved especially crucial
in the fight against AIDS. Under Canada's system of national health
care, everyone receives medical coverage regardless of their ability
to pay. In the U.S., of course, many patients cannot afford the
cost of long term care, and many private insurance companies refuse
to cover experimental treatments or even to offer policies to
those who are HIV positive. Canadians, in contrast, are assured
of necessary care and treatment at no cost. AZT and other AIDS
drugs are available free and on demand.
Robinson also mentioned other important advances in Canadian
AIDS policy, such as the increasingly wide spread availability
of anonymous HIV testing and distribution of condoms in Canada's
federal prisons. Increases in the number of publicly funded anonymous
testing centers have often been a major accomplishment of NDP
governments at the provincial and local level.
Support for maintaining the comprehensive coverage of the national
health care system remains strong, Robinson said, noting that
there has been no vocal sentiment in favor of limiting treatment
for people with AIDS. In Robinson's view, the extraordinary degree
of compassion shown in the face of the AIDS epidemic stands as
a model for public health care in general. He pointed out that
lesbians have played a major role in this regard and conceded
that gay men often have not done enough on behalf of the health
care and other concerns of women.
NDP support for basic rights and freedoms for lesbians, bisexual
people, and gay men dates back several years, at least in part
because Robinson served as the NDP's spokesperson on justice and
human rights in Canada for much of the 1980s. In 1981, Robinson
was one of two NDP members of the federal commission that drafted
the new Canadian constitution. The draft constitution included
a Charter of rights similar to the Bill of rights in the U.S.
Constitution but broader in scope in many respects. One portion
of the Charter, the "Equality Rights" section, declares
the fundamental equality of all Canadians and protects Canadian
citizens from discrimination based on irrelevant characteristics.
During the drafting process, Robinson proposed an amendment to
this section including an explicit statement on the rights of
lesbians and gay men; the commission rejected this amendment by
a vote of 23 - 2 with only Robinson and his NDP colleague supporting
Subsequently, however, Canadian courts have interpreted the
Constitution to include a prohibition against discrimination on
the basis of sexual orientation. The federal government has begun
to abide by this interpretation although not without some prodding
from the NDP and others. For example, in 1985 Robinson participated
in a seven member commission on human rights in Canada which issued
a strong, unanimous report urging an end to discrimination on
the basis of sexual orientation within the Canadian armed forces,
the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and other federal institutions.
The following year, the government agreed to take the necessary
measures to implement the recommendations, and it has since begun
to do so although slowly and in a piecemeal fashion.
After the commission released its report, a lawsuit was brought
against the RCMP challenging its policy of excluding lesbians
and gay men. The case was settled before trial when the Mounties
agreed to reverse the policy.
The Canadian military, however, still continues to expel openly
lesbian, gay or bisexual people. Robinson told of one woman who
had been in the Canadian armed forces whose experience seemed
to parallel the recent Joseph Steffan case in the United States.
Despite the high praise and respect she had earned for her performance-
one commander had described her as a "dream officer"-
this woman was summarily ousted from the military when she was
discovered to be a lesbian. She has challenged her expulsion in
court. At no cost to herself, Robinson pointed out, because of
a Canadian law guaranteeing free legal representation in suits
against governmental agencies and institutions.
Robinson mentioned that the military had been prepared to announce
an end to anti-gay and lesbian discrimination and implement a
new non-discriminatory policy in late 1991. The plan, which has
been accepted by government ministers, was stalled after some
members of the ruling Conservative Party caucus objected. While
this maneuvering was taking place, the government chose not to
announce the proposed change. However, military officials in the
U.S. were notified of the proposal, and a Pentagon leak led to
the story being reported in the Canadian press. According to Robinson,
the details of a new proposal are now being worked out and the
policy should be in place sometime in 1992.
Frustrated by the often slow pace with which the federal government
has acted to curb anti-gay discrimination, NDP provincial governments
have tried to take matters into their own hands when possible.
For example, NDP governments have extended spousal benefits to
same sex domestic partners of government employees and civil servants.
The NDP government in Ontario has gone one step further, challenging
those benefit policies of the federal government that discriminate
against government employees with same sex domestic partners.
Sitting NDP governments have also helped boost the visibility
of les/bi/gay people and concerns by appointing openly gay and
lesbian people to a variety of public boards and commissions and
by promoting education on lesbian, bisexual and gay issues in
The federal NDP has simultaneously acted on a national level
to improve the quality of life for same sex couples. Robinson
has proposed federal legislation which would insure equal treatment
for same sex couples under Canadian income tax and pension laws,
as well as a bill which would explicitly include gay, bisexual
and lesbian people as a protected class under the Canadian Human
Rights Act. (In mid-January, however, the federal government took
a big step forward by affirming that a gay man from Argentina
deserved political refugee status in Canada because of the recent
anti-gay violence perpetrated by Argentine police.)
Such victories and gains notwithstanding, Robinson pointed
out that there remain many challenges confronting the lesbian
and gay communities of Canada. Violence against bisexual, gay
and lesbian people remains an ugly reality in Canada as it does
here in the United States. Alcohol and drug abuse and suicide
among lesbian and gay youth are likewise serious problems in Canada
(as in the U.S., although here the Department of Health and Human
Services has chosen to ignore the problem) with rates of suicide
matched only among Canada's aboriginal peoples.
Surveying the international scene, Robinson drew a similarly
mixed picture, finding hopeful signs interspersed with stark realities.
During the summer of 1991, Robinson participated in a Moscow conference
of the Soviet lesbian and gay community; he called it "possibly
the most moving event I have ever participated in". At the
time of his talk, Robinson noted that sexual contact between men
was still prohibited by Article 121 of the old Soviet constitution,
and that although no specific prohibition against lesbian sex
existed, at least one woman was charged under the anti-gay law
over the summer.
Robinson gave the closing keynote at the Moscow conference.
He found that "the sense that there were people outside who
cared" made a significant difference to the lesbians and
gay men in the Soviet Union. During the attempted coup, which
took place just three weeks after the conference, lesbians and
gay men were at the front lines of opposition, knowing that their
growing freedom would have been among the immediate casualties
of a hardline reaction.
The situation in other countries, as Robinson painted it, appears
even bleaker. In Iran, for example, gays and lesbians are routinely
executed; while in China they are forced to undergo "psychiatric"
treatment. A dramatic indication of the persistent barriers to
lesbian and gay equality was given by the fate of the International
Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) conference scheduled to be
held last summer in Guadalajara, Mexico. ILGA had difficulty obtaining
space for the convention and was warned by the city's mayor that
he could not protect the conference goers against violence from
city residents. In the end, ILGA was forced to move the conference
to Acapulco but not before several delegations withdrew from the
On a more positive note, Robinson pointed out that the African
National Congress, in its draft of a new South African constitution,
has included a call for an end to discrimination on the basis
of sexual orientation. "National liberation" movements
increasingly seem to be integrating lesbian and gay equality into
their visions of new, more democratic societies; it was recently
reported that leftist rebels in El Salvador indicated they would
include protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual people in any
new constitution they drafted.
As an openly gay national elected official, Robinson remarked
he is a member of "a fairly exclusive club" that includes
U.S. Representatives Barney Frank and Gerry Studds of Massachusetts,
British Labour MP Chris Smith, and most recently Kent Carlsson,
a Swedish MP from the Social Democratic Party. Robinson said that
his greatest regret is that no other Canadian federal MPs have
followed his lead in coming out, although there are many gay and
lesbian members in all three of Canada's major political parties.
Indeed, some of his closeted colleagues have told Robinson that
they are wary of being too closely identified with him. There
have, however, been several openly gay men elected to provincial
and local offices although no open lesbians have been elected
Although it was "no secret" that he was gay to those
who knew him well, Robinson was not out when he was first elected.
He felt that it was necessary for him to establish a reputation
first as his constituents would be more likely to accept him as
a gay man if they knew him first as a good legislator. Three years
ago, after serving nearly eight years as an MP, Robinson came
out publicly on national television. The support he has received
has been "astounding", he says, commenting that seniors
have been among his most loyal partisans.
Robinson concluded by emphasizing the need for the gay, bisexual
and lesbian movement to continue to widen its scope by building
bridges across racial, generational and gender lines and across
national borders. He reminded the audience that "we stand
on the shoulders of giants who made our liberation possible."
By Bob Roman
The ILGWU strike against Rainfair, reported in the last
issue of New Ground, was settled on December 20. All
the striking workers returned to work with a 20 cent per hour
raise and a limited health insurance co-payment. The settlement
is being credited to labor solidarity.
While the strike took nearly six months, the settlement reached
would probably have been acceptable to the employees had it been
offered to them within the first few weeks of the strike. It was
only the bloody-minded anti-union attitude of the Rainfair company
that kept the conflict going. It was this hostility set against
an underpaid, mostly female work force represented by a small
union that made the strike a perfect metaphor for the state of
labor today. Sensing a public relations bonanza, the AFL-CIO started
to mobilize its resources in support of the strikers.
One has to wonder at the stupidity of the Rainfair company.
Most of its product is used by police, firemen, letter carriers
and the building trades. Faced with the prospect of a labor boycott,
Rainfair's distributors made it very plain to the company that
its goods were not worth the hassle: if a boycott developed, the
wholesalers were not going to continue distributing Rainfair products.
Faced with this prospect, Rainfair's effort at union-busting collapsed,
even to the point of returning production shifted elsewhere to
the Kenosha plant and bringing back all the strikers. The only
face the company saved was the retention of at least some of the
The scabs do not seem to have a long life expectancy. This
is not because the ILGWU is particularly interesting in running
them out of the plant but rather the circumstances of work at
the plant. Some of the scabs were only interested in earning Christmas
money and not much interested in continuing to work past the holiday.
Others had become accustomed to the lenient working conditions
during the strike and were not at all prepared for the strict
workplace discipline that is normal to the plant. And finally,
while the "market place" does not highly value the work
of the employees, it is not an unskilled occupation. These "new"
employees just do not have the skill necessary to keep up with
the older employees.
The strike has also had beneficial consequences outside the
ILGWU. At least one Wisconsin employer, U.S. Can, has begun contract
negotiations early specifically to avoid a strike. What was intended
as the opening move in a campaign to break organized labor has
ended in something of a retreat.
At the same time, solidarity often seems to be given more lip
service than concrete application. It is true that at least part
of the Rainfair victory is due to Capital's ill-considered choice
of a battleground: a company whose product is used mostly by unionized
employees at the workplace and whose plant is located in a solidly
union town. But rightly or wrongly, many other unions have been
considerably less aggressive in soliciting outside help. It's
worth asking to what extent this is a considered judgement based
on the "objective" political situation and to what extent
it is that solidarity is a lesson that must be continually relearned.