Meet LGBTory, the advocacy group changing conservative politics and boosting Patrick Brown

Meet LGBTory, the advocacy group changing conservative politics and boosting Patrick Brown

When Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown participated in his first Pride parade, he marched with LGBTory. When he was in the middle of a public-relations crisis over Ontario's LGBT-friendly sex-ed curriculum, he met with LGBTory.

When federal Conservatives were preparing for Leader Andrew Scheer to deliver his part of a historic apology on behalf of the government for its treatment of LGBT public servants, they turned to LGBTory for advice.

The group has power and relevance today that shows just how much has changed for LGBT people and policy in Conservative politics.

"Officially, our spelling is LGBTory, but we always say 'LGBT Tory,' because trans people are very sensitive to being included in the discussion," said Eric Lorenzen, vice-president of communications for the group.

The group's president is Doc von Lichtenberg, the Toronto proprietor of a Doc's Leathers, whose LGBT activism is lifelong and includes his arrest and a billy club injury in the city's bathhouse-raid riots of 1981, Lorenzen said. The group was founded in late 2014, with the goal of ensuring there was a conservative contingent in the 2015 Toronto Pride parade.

"There's a misconception, I think, in the mind of the general public, that all LGBT people are left wing. We felt that that was unfair. And that the easiest way to sort of counter that misconception was to make sure that we were visible at Pride," he said.

The Liberals and NDP take LGBT support for granted and they shouldn't, he said.

"The other reason for doing it is we felt there were conservative politicians who were sympathetic to the LGBT community, or allies to the LGBT community, who wanted to appear at Pride but had no vehicle to appear. A Conservative member of parliament isn't going to just show up and walk down Yonge Street by themselves, whereas MPs from other parties had groups to walk with."

That contingent included Brown, who had recently won the leadership of the Ontario Tories, PC MPP Lisa MacLeod, and Conservative MP Kellie Leitch, who had yet to announce her eventual failed bid for the federal leadership.

(Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown (2nd from right) marches in the parade. Toronto Pride 2015 took over the downtown core as the annual Pride Parade wound itself through the downtown. Photographed on JUNE 28, 2015. Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)

After 2015 Pride was a success, the group turned its focus to removing the federal Conservative party's opposition to equal marriage from its policy book, which it succeeded in doing at the party's 2016 convention.

Lorenzen — a four-decade conservative — said the stance on marriage held by the Conservative party and its predecessors had always bothered him. "It always stuck in my craw that I supported a party that didn't believe in equal marriage."

But he wasn't surprised to find that 2016 was the year for progress, as the Conservatives he interacts with every day — in "true-blue Conservative" eastern Ontario — all supported the change. The time had come: There had been a major shift on equal marriage across all parties, Conservatives included.

Where Brown and the Ontario PCs stand on social issues is very much a live issue today. Brown has been criticized for having a perfect social conservative voting record as a federal MP, and for campaigning for the PC leadership with the help of social conservatives when he jumped to provincial politics, before doing a 180 and coming out as a progressive on social issues — becoming a guy who marches in Pride parades, with a modern view on a social issues that's more palatable to the broader electorate.

The Liberal party and union-funded third-party advertisers would have voters believe he is, at heart, a stone-aged so-con with a hidden agenda, or at least a flip-flopper on moral issues — or possibly both.

LGBTory's involvement with Brown came shortly before the 2015 Pride Parade — he reached out and said he wanted to march, said Lorenzen.

"It's been a very productive relationship since then," he said. "We've reached out to him, and he's very receptive to our outreach. We've provided him with policy advice, on political and party issues, which we think he's taken to heart. We've supported him against his critics in the party."

Brown has marched with LGBTory for the past three years.

For Lorenzen, Brown's past votes aren't a deal breaker. Many MPs, including Brown, voted against changing the definition of marriage in 2005, even more did so in 1999.

"In my opinion, Patrick Brown was representing the zeitgeist in the Conservative Party at that time. Times have changed, and he's changed. He's evolved on that issue and he's met lots of LGBT people realized — and he's told us: 'I regret having made those votes in the past,' " Lorenzen said. "We accept that explanation. He's going out of his way since then to reach out to us."

"We think he's sincere," he added.

Brown's image as a progressive on social issues took a hit during the provincial Scarborough-Rouge River byelection in 2016. Brown's then chief of staff, Nicolas Pappalardo, had met with social conservative activists who were against the government's new LGBT-inclusive sex-ed curriculum and showed them a letter, signed by Brown, saying "a PC Government would scrap the controversial changes to sex-ed," that Tories later distributed around the riding.

Brown attributed the letter to a the local campaign and he wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star, saying that a letter in his name was "a mistake," and he fully supports the updated sex-ed curriculum.

In the days that followed, spurned social Conservatives turned to the media — The Globe, the Toronto Sun and QP Briefing — and provided text messages and emails from Brown during the leadership race saying he was opposed to the curriculum, earning their support. In those messages, Brown sought to reassure the so-cons that, despite their concerns over his public appearance at Pride with LGBTory, he was against the sex-ed curriculum, and would repeal it.

In the middle of the controversy, Brown met with LGBTory and assured the group that the LGBT aspects of the curriculum would not be removed. Today, Lorenzen says he accepts Brown's explanation that the sex-ed letter went out without Brown's approval.

"We think the Scarborough-Rouge River issue was ham-handed and poorly handled, but he did come out and repudiate what happened under no uncertain terms and accepted the criticism of what happened, and he took the blame for it," he said. "We think it was a misstep."

He added that there are legitimate concerns about public consultation concerning curriculum that were shared by the NDP — and criticisms of the curriculum itself are not necessarily homophobic, despite the fact that the "religious right" has "latched on" to the LGBT components of it.

Overall, LGBTory has been helpful to Brown, and will continue to be, according to Lorenzen.

"I think what we've been able to help him achieve is to move the party more to the centre," he said. "In the long run, I think that's healthy for the PC party. The PC party cannot win just on a right-wing base alone. They have to appeal to centrists, they have to appeal to disaffected Liberal voters, urban voters, and people in the suburbs of Toronto, and they will not vote for a party that is perceived to be homophobic or have an anti-LGBT agenda."

"We've helped, in a small way, to get that message out — that the party's no longer like that. He's taken some criticism from the religious right in the party on that, that he's sold out, but in the long run it's going to pay off by appealing to centrist voters, urban voters, women, and so forth."

MacLeod, who marched alongside Brown in Pride, is an LGBTory member and vocally supports the group and its message. She grew up in a progressive conservative tradition, pro-choice and in support of same-sex marriage. LGBTory has given a lot of oxygen and support to that kind of conservative, she said.

"Whether it's marching in Pride, or being part of legislation, they're there to support members of my party and members of their community," she said.

Having support means she can do things such as co-sponsor an Ontario bill to recognize Trans Day of Remembrance, even though some others in her party would find it controversial.

LGTBTory's support will also help Brown and the PCs counter the "malicious and ridiculous" attacks from political opponents attempting to frame the PCs' position on social issues and women, she added.

The pro-LGBT message is a benefit for conservatives across Canada — and similar ones have come from Scheer and the Leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party Jason Kenney, Lorenzen said.

"Campaigning on a social conservative, anti-LGBT, anti-gay marriage, anti-LGBT equality platform is no longer acceptable for any party, anywhere in the country," he said. "But to be fair, conservative parties federally and provincially have been the last parties to come to the table on that."

So much has changed in his 40 years of conservative politics, Lorenzen said. Until recently, it would have been unheard of for a gay conservative group to have a booth at the Manning Conference — as LGBTory will next month — and interim federal conservative leader Rona Ambrose marching in Toronto Pride last year would have been unthinkable, he said.

Yet, Scheer has said he won't march, which Lorenzen called "regrettable."

Just as LGBTory doesn't believe that opposition to the sex-ed curriculum is homophobic, the group doesn't believe that being against gay marriage makes someone a homophobe — they meet people frequently with gay loved ones, who support gay people, but have deeply held religious believes that put them against gay marriage, Lorenzen said.

Refusing to march in the Pride parade also isn't necessarily homophobic, he said, as some people are turned off by the political polarization of Pride by groups such as Black Lives Matter. And someone with Scheer's personal religious beliefs might not get the warmest welcome, he added.

"I don't blame Andrew Scheer for not marching in Pride," he said, but added that it would help Scheer nonetheless by spreading that message that conservatives can be the party for LGBT people, and putting to rest questions about his political intentions.

What matters more is the LGBT apology — which LGBTory advised on — and Scheer's promise not to reopen divisive social conservatives issues, he said.

"The pride thing is not a deal breaker for us — although we'll be watching carefully to see what happens. We're more focused on what he says and what he does as leader."

Jessica Smith Cross

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