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New Ground

Volume 6, Nos. 1 - 2

Spring, 1992

Selected articles only.

 


Gay Canadian Socialist MP Inspires DSAers

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 the measure.

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 public schools.

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 event.

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 so far.

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."


Return to Rainfair: Solidarity Works

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 "permanent" replacements.

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.


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