Mayor Rob Ford's unofficial boycott of Pride Week is having a disturbing and predictable effect. It is emboldening the city's haters. Since he announced he would be skipping the Pride parade to go to the cottage, they have been scurrying into the open like insects from an upturned rock, cheering the mayor for staying away from the "disgusting" spectacle on Yonge Street and jeering leaders of the gay community for urging him to attend.
"I'm so glad that Toronto has a mayor who can ignore that vulgar and obscene event," said one comment on The Globe and Mail's online edition. "I think being gay or lesbian is a disease," a Globe reader said in an e-mail. "The queers have to be flamboyant and in your face, just to prove they are 'normal,'" wrote a contributor to another newspaper's comment page. Editors were kept busy deleting many far worse remarks from their web sites.
No one is saying the mayor deliberately whipped up these ugly sentiments, much less that he shares them. But he should have foreseen the damage his snub of Pride could do. Homophobia is an ancient prejudice, still virulent despite the remarkable advances in gay rights of the past few decades. The events of the past week show how swiftly it can resurface.
Glen Brown, the interim executive director of Pride, calls the homophobic remarks "alarming and disturbing," a reminder that gays and lesbians are still a long way from achieving full comfort and acceptance. Only months ago, he says, someone he knows was the victim of a gay bashing near Church and Wellesley streets.
That is why it is so important for public officials to support Pride. When they participate in the Pride parade, as mayors have for more than a decade, they are sending a powerful message that homophobia is not tolerated in our city. They are signalling that the whole city, led by its highest official, stands shoulder to shoulder against this poisonous form of hatred.
By boycotting Pride, declining to attend not just the parade but all other Pride events so far, Mr. Ford is sending the opposite message. He is saying that shunning the gay community is acceptable. He is giving the bigots cover to voice their dark resentments. In effect, if not in intent, he is legitimizing hate.
Mr. Ford's defenders say people are making too much of his absence from Pride. It's just not his thing, so let him be. But gestures like this matter. Imagine how it feels for the gay teenager who is considering coming out of the closet when he hears that the mayor is staying away from Pride and that a good part of the city is applauding him for it.
The mayor's own excuses for staying away are looking weaker and weaker. He said he was skipping Sunday's parade to go to the family cottage for a traditional get-together. But that doesn't explain why he opted out of the many other, more low-key Pride events that have been taking place all this week.
He could easily have defused the controversy and silenced the bigots by walking a few steps from his office to attend the raising of the rainbow Pride flag at city hall on Monday. Instead, he skipped it for a "very important meeting" with Leafs general manager Brian Burke that happened to include a tour of the Air Canada Centre, a bonus for the sports-loving mayor. Mr. Ford came back proudly wearing a new Leafs jersey.
Prejudice is a mob phenomenon. If the mob senses the momentum is going its way, it will run riot. If bigots get the feeling, right or wrong, that the mayor himself is somehow on their side, they will think they have permission to spread their bile. The mayor seems altogether oblivious to the danger he is inviting.