I was scheduled to speak on The Current, until its producer realized I might mention our foreign minister
When a producer from CBC’s The Current asked if I would appear on the show to discuss the politics of “outing” closeted politicians who work against the fight for gay rights, I didn’t hesitate in accepting.
And I wasn’t alone. CBC also asked playwright and Xtra contributor Brad Fraser, as well as Roy Mitchell, activist and host of Roynation.
But, in the end, none of us appeared on the Sept 17 program. The producers wanted to ensure that there would be no mention of Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
“The implications of this whole thing is really horrifying,” Fraser says. “Our tax-payer funded national broadcaster doing this, it stinks to high heaven.”
In an email exchange, producer Gord Westmacott told Fraser that he must “hold back” from mentioning the names of any specific politicians on air because Baird “has made the choice not to talk publicly about it."
Fraser was upfront. He had every intention of using Baird as an example on the show. He wrote back, assuring Westmacott that Baird is an out gay man and the CBC should not be scared to talk about it. “[Baird] is very out with his lifestyle and in the gay community, but chooses not to talk about it in the media where it may have an effect on the Conservative voting base.”
He told Westmacott to find another guest. Undeterred, Westmacott offered a compromise: Fraser could talk about a “prominent Conservative MP who is widely believed to be gay,” but withhold the name.
Fraser did not agree to those terms and declined again.
Mitchell and I were invited by producer Nuruddin Qorane, who later uninvited both of us when it became clear that we would also likely mention Baird on air.
In my email exchange with Qorane, I sent a link to a story I wrote last month in which Ontario NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo called on “Canada’s gay Foreign Minister John Baird” to speak out strongly about the unfolding situation in Russia at an Aug 3 rally in Toronto's gay Village. Baird, to his credit, did speak out on this issue.
At the time, DiNovo was criticized as “outing” Baird. But that’s not actually what happened. Baird was outed in mainstream media three years ago by Pamela Taylor, a former Progressive Conservative candidate for Toronto-Centre, on CBC’s Metro Morning.
Even before that, Fraser wrote about Baird’s “glass closet” for Fab Magazine in 2007. In it, Fraser talks about a Globe and Mail story that calls Baird “first consort to the first lady.” He translates the code to “Laureen Harper is his fag hag.”
“It’s common knowledge that Baird is gay,” Fraser says. “There is no outing of John Baird. John Baird is out. What they don’t want us to do is talk about it publicly in a national forum because the voting base in Alberta or Saskatchewan is not going to like it.
“I really want to know what is going on here and why the CBC is telling me what I can and can’t say,” he adds. “Who are they trying to keep this from?”
Jennifer Moroz, executive producer of CBC’s The Current says avoiding any mention of specific Canadians is a “sound journalistic” decision. “We can’t just deal in hearsay and rumours. We’re not here to out people willy nilly. There’s really no good journalistic reason for that,” she tells Xtra.
Fraser posted a detailed account of his experience on Facebook. Over on Mitchell’s Facebook page, his followers engaged in a lively discussion about the ethics of tailoring a discussion to line up with government talking points. Many called the CBC’s decision an act of censorship.
For the show, producers went with an all-male American panel - Duncan Osborne, a member of New York-based activist group Queer Nation and Washington-based Gregory Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay members of the Republican Party.
The guests discussed a recent story out of Russia. Moscow journalist and activist Elena Kostyuchenko has threatened to out anti-gay politicians if they vote in favour of the latest anti-gay piece of legislation that calls for the children of queer parents to be seized by authorities.
The question to the panel: “Is it ever ethical to out a gay politician?”
Not surprisingly, the Log Cabin Republicans are against outing closeted public figures in any circumstance, even if they are disingenuous in their support of gay rights. The radical queer activist, on the other hand, supports using outings as a way to expose hypocrisy. It wasn’t much of a debate. And with no Canadian voice, Mitchell calls the discussion “banal.”
“They wanted people who would not mention John Baird,” Fraser says. “No Canadian queer activist could discuss the subject without using Baird as an example.”
Moroz says the show was never meant to discuss specific people. “In Mr. Fraser’s case, he made it clear he would like to out someone or some people, and that was never the intent, so we decided he wasn’t a good fit, knowing what conversation we wanted to have, which was a broader, philosophical, ethical discussion.”
Fraser says protecting dishonest systems of power is the opposite of good journalism.
“This is horrifying to me,” he says. “Look at [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford. There are many things that he chooses not to talk about either, but media isn’t protecting him.”
Fraser says Baird is using his sexuality in a dishonest way by living a double life, and the CBC is allowing him the privilege of hiding, for no good reason.
“[The CBC] is colluding with the government on something that should be unimportant, and actually muzzling people from talking about it,” he says.
“What? Oh, Baird isn’t out in the press? Sorry, dude. You’re a public figure. You do not get to have it both ways. You don’t get to go out and live a gay lifestyle at gay bars . . . but through the media give half the country the impression that you are heterosexual. Baird is completely within his rights not to say anything he doesn’t want to, but I am completely within my rights to say anything that I would like to say, so long as it doesn’t step over any legal lines or slander someone.”
Fraser notes that calling someone gay is not cause for libel anyway. “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being gay, so what’s the issue here?” he says. “Being referred to as gay is not in any legal way defamatory.”
Moroz wouldn’t confirm or deny that the Canadian government, or any official from Baird’s office, gave a directive to the CBC that his sexuality is off limits. “I can’t even answer that,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mitchell says the CBC did a disservice to its listeners by going with an all-American panel, despite having three Canadian guests ready to go.
Moroz says that’s a fair criticism. “We are a Canadian show and we really do try to get Canadian talent on as much as possible, but we run up against deadline and clearly in this particular case we ran up against this other issue, a panelist that wanted to talk about something that wasn’t in line with the intent of the panel.
“I’m sure you can appreciate deadlines. We really put the best effort in to get the most compelling panel together in a short amount of time. Do I wish we had Canadians on? Yeah, sure I do.”
Mitchell, who also phoned Moroz to discuss the situation, says the CBC censored more than just the panel.
The link for the segment was not posted on the show’s Facebook page, unlike other segments. Mitchell also says all his comments on the page were deleted, even comments with no mention of Baird. “Clearly they are afraid people will start to talk about it, and inevitably mention John Baird,” he says. “This is what happens when people are afraid of the government.”
Moroz is staying clear of addressing any accusations of censorship. “A person’s personal life is personal, unless there’s a substantiated allegation that is impacting negatively on their public service if they are a public servant.”
But that’s just it, Mitchell says. For Baird, being gay is no longer personal. It’s political. Baird is making it Canada’s business to advise other nations, such as Uganda and Russia, to respect gay rights, yet for some reason he can’t be out in his own country. That says there is something wrong with being gay. The message should be that a person’s sexuality doesn’t matter, he says.
“If anything he should be proud of who he is,” he says. “Having a gay foreign minister should be a sign of how progressive we are. It’s not embarrassing to be gay. It’s not shameful to be gay. I’m gay. Baird has all the privilege and he’s afraid to be public? What’s that say?”