The biggest after-hours event at the Conservative Party convention last fall wasn't Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's hospitality suite. Nor was it a shindig thrown by a major lobbying firm. The party everyone wanted to go to is one that, 10 years ago, many wouldn't have imagined: one that celebrates the prominence and prevalence of gay Conservatives. Organizers call it the fabulous blue tent.
"I get more reaction from gay people" who aren't Conservative, says Fred Litwin, one of the organizers of the biennial fabulous blue tent parties, and president of the Free Thinking Film Society.
Litwin, who has been known to say that he has to come out as Conservative to his gay friends, was one of the party members in 2011 who helped arrange the first blue tent party.
"Look, when I first started blogging under the name 'gay and right' back in 2003 or 2004, I used to get three different types of email. I'd get [small-c] conservatives who were really pissed off that I was gay, I'd get gay people who were really pissed off that I was Conservative, and then I would get a whole bunch of gay people who are like, holy f--k, I found somebody [similar]," he said.
For a party that saw most of its MPs vote against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2005, and which ran ads about Stephen Harper's support for "traditional marriage," the difference is striking.
The first fabulous blue tent party in 2011 drew about 600 people, said Roy Eappen, one of the organizers, who helped front some of the money for the events. Thrown in a swanky suite at Ottawa's Westin hotel, the party spilled out onto a balcony with a view of Parliament Hill.
"I think people are very supportive and you know it's funny, people have now started calling it an institution at conventions. After two times — it's hilarious," Eappen said.
Among the guests at the 2013 party were Laureen Harper, whom Eappen notes stayed for three hours, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and Minister of State for sports Bal Gosal. Wild Rose Party Leader Danielle Smith was also there.
The doorman at this year's event said he turned away a cabinet minister because the event was too full, albeit at a smaller venue than the 2011 event.
'Vocal' on gay rights
The idea for the party started with Jamie Ellerton, a former staffer for Jason Kenney and a Conservative Party member since 2005.
Ellerton says it's inaccurate to paint the Conservative caucus as the only one that was slow to recognize gay rights.
"If you look at how society has progressed on this issue, don't forget that in the late nineties, the vast majority of the Liberal caucus voted against this when Jean Chrétien was prime minister," he said.
When the then-Liberal government passed the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, more than two dozen Liberals voted against the bill.
Now, Ellerton and Eappen say, the Conservatives, fight for gay rights around the world. Baird has singled out individual countries for criticism over bills that would punish people for being gay or for fighting for gay rights.
"The government has been very vocal symbolically when it matters and tactically behind the scenes constantly looking to advance minority rights," including minority religious rights, Ellerton said.
"Yes, some historical NDP members were there in the very early days when nobody had time or were accepting of gays or lesbians. But this isn't 1965 anymore. It's 2013 and here you have gays and lesbians across the political spectrum, active in all parties, including in the Conservative Party and robustly so ... So the fact that Liberals, and I think more particularly NDP, think that because you're gay you're a tax and spend socialist is disconnected from reality," Ellerton said.
Despite that, the party doesn't have any MPs who are open with the media about being gay or lesbian (both the Liberals and New Democrats have openly gay MPs). A Conservative senator, Nancy Ruth, is the lone openly gay member of caucus.
Interests beyond rights
After a couple of high-profile teen suicides, attributed in part to bullying over the teens' sexuality, comedian Rick Mercer, who is gay, alluded to a gay cabinet minister and urged people in the public eye to come out of the closet.
"Because I know gay cops, soldiers, athletes, cabinet ministers, a lot of us do. But the problem is, adults, we don't need role models. Kids do," Mercer said in 2011.
"So if you're gay and you're in public life, I'm sorry, you don't have to run around with a pride flag and bore the hell out of everyone, but you can't be invisible. Not any more."
Eappen suggests there's a difference between being openly gay and doing interviews about one's sexuality.
"I think people are comfortable with what people are comfortable with. Until recently I never went around telling people I'm gay. It's not that I was closeted, everyone knows, I just didn't make a big point of talking about it," he said.
After all, Ellerton said, there are plenty of other issues for people to care about. The fight in Canada is more about how to take on bullying than pushing for equal rights.
"We have all the laws on the books," he said, while acknowledging there's likely room for improvement on some.
Being gay or lesbian doesn't mean someone who is politically interested cares only about gay rights, Ellerton said.
"I think gay Canadians want a job. Gay Canadians want to be able to live free and prosper ... They want to make sure government is being run effectively," he said.
"Just because they happen to be sexually attracted to and love someone of the same sex, they're otherwise Canadians like the rest of us."
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