On a hot Sunday morning five summers ago, my wife and I were bicycling through Riverdale on our way to church. Heading west along Simpson Avenue, we saw what looked like half a dozen horses with policemen astride.
Odd, I thought.
As we pedalled closer, we saw dozens of police officers streaming into the local church a block away.
My paranoia went on high alert.
Yes, it was our church, Metropolitan Community Church. But it’s also Toronto’s gay church, whose senior pastor, Brent Hawkes, performed the first legal same-sex marriage in the world in 2001. For a brief moment, I thought perhaps the police were storming the church. After all, in 1981 the Toronto Police raided four gay bathhouses and arrested 300 men for being in a “bawdy house.” But “Operation Soap” was a turning point for gay rights in Canada. Even then, Ontario’s attorney general, Roy McMurtry, felt that such actions were akin to a police state.
Police harassing gays? Until recently, it’s been the most natural thing in the world, because until not long ago, homosexuality was a criminal offence.
But back to church. My wife and I parked our bikes and walked in to a packed house of 400 parishioners. About half of them were members of the Toronto Police Service, there to celebrate MCC’s annual Police Appreciation Service, which MCC has hosted since 2005.
It was remarkable in a number of ways: first, Chief Bill Blair was there with his wife, Susan Blair, a social worker who spoke from the pulpit about the pain of isolation borne by both the police and the gay community.
Then gay police couples, some in full-dress uniform, walked forward to take communion, acknowledging the chief on their way to the altar, and he, them. After his sermon, Rev. Hawkes welcomed new members of the congregation, including two young men barely in their 20s, who had just arrived from Moscow. I wondered if the mayor of Moscow would be taking part in a similar service in Russia, and quickly thought better of that fantasy. Then the Toronto Police Association Men’s Chorus sang, and when the service was done, we all walked out into the sun with the police horses and their riders providing a sort of guard of honour.
That episode reconfirmed for me why Toronto consistently ranks among the most livable cities in the world.
If anything, our pride was even more evident this past Sunday. My wife and I decided to attend the annual MCC “Church on Church” held in a parking lot across from Maple Leaf Gardens before the Pride Parade takes over the street, the neighbourhoodand the city three hours later.
Not only was Chief Blair in attendance, but he stood saluting as the MCC choir sang “O Canada,” and then was introduced by Rev. Hawkes, along with John Tory, Carolyn Bennett, Bob Rae, Olivia Chow and various city councillors – all to long applause.
Leaving the service, we walked up Church Street to find a row of booths all recruiting passersby to consider a career with the Durham Regional Police, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Toronto Police Service.
It’s taken three decades for the police to shift from raiding gay assemblies in Toronto to joining them for the purpose of filling their ranks with the people they used to despise.
Meanwhile, two years ago across the border in America, Barack Obama repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law for members of the military, and this year he pledged his support for same-sex marriage.
Given the waves of goodwill that engulfed the million plus people who took part or watched the Pride Parade in Toronto, it’s easy to assume that in a few years, there will be no prejudice at all against the LGBT community (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered). As so many teenagers now proclaim: “Get over it!”
Don’t kid yourself. As Brent Hawkes says at every turn, the battle for gay rights is a battle for human rights, and human rights are never won easily – or kept without constant vigilance. Even today, you can be sent to jail in 75 countries if you’re gay and you can be executed in seven.
True, here in Canada, gays can get married, adopt children, serve openly in the military, enjoy pension and survivor rights.
But as one T-shirt in the parade said: “Pride’s all fun and gay, until you take away someone’s rights.”
That warning was echoed by Rev. Hawkes, who cautioned in his sermon on Sunday not just to celebrate and demonstrate (the theme of this year’s Pride Parade), but to work to make sure there’s no backpedaling in the extraordinary progress the LGBT community has made – and the non-LGBT community has made with its attitudes as well.
What’s the next flash point going to be?
Here’s my guess. Toronto has won the right to host World Pride 2014, which includes a parade of nations and an international human rights conference.
And who will Toronto’s mayor be in the summer of 2014?
His not turning up for this will not only insult rising numbers of citizens of Ford Nation, it will embarrass us in the eyes of the world, who would view the mayor’s absence as voting with his feet.
We have two years to change Rob Ford’s mind about where he should be on Canada Day.
Or change our city’s mind on who our chief constable should be.
For when it comes to Pride, there’s no room anymore for prejudice.