Rob Ford, defying all expectations, attended today's PFLAG flag-raising. And immediately the question became: do we applaud him for showing up or lament that our bar has been lowered so far?
It is a measure of how much of an issue Rob Ford’s relationship with Toronto’s queer communities has become that City Hall’s roof was filled today, with journalists and participants and the curious who came on a whim, all there to see Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays mark this as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Last year the crowd—media, councillors, participants, everyone—was a fraction of the size.
Today people came to City Hall to stand up for their loved ones, to support their children and siblings and parents and friends. They also came to bear witness to an absence: as late as this morning, the mayor said he wouldn’t be attending.
But then he showed up, and the question immediately became: what does this mean, and how much does it matter?
The answer is both a great deal, and not very much at all.
“Can you move away from the cameras?” “This isn’t about the cameras.”
A small exchange between a cameraman and a PFLAG member before official proceedings got underway, before the mayor made his appearance—and much of the problem summarized in two sentences.
Rob Ford defied all expectations when he showed up today. After more than a decade in office, after any number of ignorant and offensive remarks (remember when we didn’t need to worry about AIDS because “only” gay men and injection drug users get it?), after last year’s blanket refusal to attend any Pride events and this year’s refusal to commit to attending because he was a really busy guy, it was a genuinely remarkable moment. It broke the pattern. It was something new.
When the mayor arrived, when he was introduced and moved to stand at the podium, there was a great deal of surprised applause, and not a single boo. When he finished there was more of the same. After he spoke came Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, who said “Well, folks, how do you follow that? Let’s hear it for the mayor.” People kept clapping. Councillors thanked him for showing up. Kevin Beaulieu, chair of Pride Toronto, told us he was similarly glad. For anyone who has been saying that Ford should skip Pride because he’d only get heckled for his efforts, this was proof that there is another way, that many people have been serious when they’ve said they’d welcome the mayor’s presence, that they would be glad to host him if only he’d show up.
Many people who have a coming out story also have a story of a reluctant supporter, a parent or grandparent or friend who rejected them at first but then eventually came to stand by their side. The rejection is wrong and it is heartbreaking, but most of the time that doesn’t render the eventual support meaningless. When it comes—even though it is later than it should be and even though it never should have been a question at all—for many people, it still matters.
This is why today was remarkable: because it was the first sign of change in Ford, who has steered so staunchly clear of the queer community for so many years. Because even after years of rejection, the support can still be welcome if it ultimately comes.
But Ford’s gesture today was also for the cameras—and that really isn’t what this should be about at all.
Supporting a community isn’t a question of showing up once, or once a year, reading a proclamation someone else wrote, and then going about the rest of your day. Ford cannot now check off his “make peace with the queer community” tick box on his to-do list, and move on. This is only a sign of change if it proves to be the first in a sequence, if it is followed by changes in attitude and action and policy. It matters, but we will only know how much retrospectively, once we’ve seen what comes next.
Another way of putting it: it will only really matter when it ceases to be worthy of note.
There is an alternate and perfectly accurate way of describing what happened today: the mayor of Toronto showed up at the PFLAG flag-raising, and people were glad. It is a description which makes clear just how unremarkable today, in another sense, really was. It is a very ordinary thing, elected officials showing up for the PFLAG ceremony: Toronto mayors have done it for years. If you are the mayor of Toronto and it is May 17, we might say, it’s just what showing up for work looks like. It is only rendered remarkable by Ford’s long record of failure, by his recalcitrance.
We can neither excuse Ford’s past failures nor slam doors in the face of potential evolution—that is why today meant both a little and a lot. And there is no greater testimony to how much we need PFLAG than the fact that it was a big deal that the mayor decided to join them. Ford, by causing a stir with his arrival, demonstrated more clearly than anything else that we still have a long way to go, collectively, on the road to full acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t just come in front of cameras though. So we thank you, Mayor Ford, for showing up today. We will see what you do tomorrow.