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Gender + Sexuality

When LGBTQ2S+ Politicians Join Socially Conservative Parties

Elenore Sturko’s aisle jump raises questions about how candidates weigh their identities, values and ambitions.

Katie Hyslop 20 Jun 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop is a reporter with The Tyee.

When South Surrey MLA Elenore Sturko announced earlier this month that she was defecting to the Conservative Party of BC from BC United, many were understandably confused.

Sturko, a lesbian, has publicly supported queer and trans issues in the recent past, including the sexual orientation and gender identity learning, teaching and school board policy resources collectively known as SOGI 123.

The B.C. Conservatives, currently enjoying unprecedented growth in public opinion polls, have done the opposite.

Current fellow B.C. Conservative candidate Paul Ratchford once referred to Sturko as a “woke, lesbian, social justice warrior” on social media.

In a June 3 press conference announcing her move to the Conservatives, Sturko, a former RCMP officer and a harsh critic of the provincial safe supply program for some at risk of overdose, gave little insight into how she reconciled her identity and prior support of SOGI 123 in schools with joining the party.

“I’ve not abandoned the LGBTQ+ community, I’m part of it,” Sturko told The Tyee at the time, adding: “We definitely need to take a look at SOGI.”

Sturko will run in the Surrey-Cloverdale riding formerly held by her once mentor, current BC United Leader Kevin Falcon.

The day after Sturko left BC United, Conservative Party of BC Leader John Rustad repeated a comparison of SOGI 123 resources in B.C. schools to the residential school system, which forcibly removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families, subjecting them to abuse and disease, as well as robbing them of their languages and cultures. Thousands of children died at these government institutions.

“What went on with residential schools was absolutely horrendous, what happened to Indigenous children. But why did that happen? Because we took away parents’ rights,” Rustad told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

“Parents’ rights” is a phrase widely used in protests against supports and services for trans and queer people, especially for kids and youth.

“We took away the rights of parents to have a say in their [children’s] education,” Rustad continued. “We took away the rights of parents to raise their children, and we took these children as being wards of the state, and that’s not appropriate. And that was not appropriate then, and it’s certainly not appropriate today.”

Rustad also defended B.C. Conservative candidate Karin Litzcke when she put out messaging in support of an adult man who confronted a child he believed to be transgender at a school sports day.

Sturko previously criticized Rustad for his positions on LGBTQ2S+ issues.

Reading the tea leaves

Charmaine de Silva, who is now a senior account director at the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, but was formerly a journalist and co-chair of the Vancouver Pride Society, told The Tyee that Sturko’s decision had not surprised her.

“It’s not that uncommon for people to cross the floor to join other political parties. I think sometimes politicians read the tea leaves and make decisions based on what they think is going to happen,” she said, adding there is a diversity of political beliefs in the LGBTQ2S+ community.

A woman with medium skin tone and a dark, curly bob smiles at the camera.
‘Whether you’re a queer person or not, we have a lot of competing values, things that are more important to us,’ says Charmaine de Silva, former co-chair of the Vancouver Pride Society. Photo submitted.

Fiona MacDonald, associate political science professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, boils down Sturko’s motivations even further: “Getting elected,” she said.

MacDonald cited a comment Sturko made earlier this month — “We can only ignore the polls for so long” — to back up her analysis.

“I’m not interested in fighting with the right,” Sturko told reporters on June 3. “I’m interested in defeating the NDP and making life better for British Columbians.”

The B.C. Conservatives recently released their “ideas” for the next election, highlighting areas they will focus their campaign on.

These include pledges that a B.C. Conservative government will remove “political bias and ideology” from classrooms, fund all families’ education “choices” including home-schooling, and stand up for “parental rights.”

But the party also backs ideas that Sturko has championed since she was elected in 2022, including investing more in drug treatment, and cancelling decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs. Sturko and the B.C. Conservatives also want to end programs allowing doctors to prescribe safer supply to patients at risk of poisoning from tainted street drugs.

Sturko is the fourth BC United member to join the Conservatives, starting with Rustad himself, following his August 2022 removal from BC United over his position on climate change.

A woman with medium-light skin tone, dark rimmed glasses and a blond bob smiles at the camera and holds up a book.
‘So often what we see is when you’re in opposition, you have more ideological rhetoric,’ says Fiona MacDonald, associate political science professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. ‘If you are elected, that’s often toned down.’ Photo submitted.

“It’s possible that the candidate believes they might be influential within the party to change the tone of the discussion on LGBTQ+ rights,” MacDonald said, speaking broadly about queer political candidates who are members of parties hostile to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

And it has knock-on benefits for the party, too. “They might make the party appear friendlier to voters,” MacDonald said.

“If there are voters that have very strong views against inclusivity, they might not like it. But most Canadian voters do take a fairly strategic view. So when you’re in opposition, there is a pretty broad consensus that the party should do what it takes to win,” MacDonald added.

Sturko is certainly not the first queer politician in Canada to join a socially conservative party.

The Conservative Party of Canada, for example, fought against legalizing gay marriage in the early to mid-2000s. More recently current party leader Pierre Poilievre announced he is against the use of puberty blockers for kids under the age of 18.

Yet there are prominent LGBTQ2S+ members of the Conservative Party of Canada, including current MPs Eric Duncan and deputy party leader Melissa Lantsman, as well as former senator Nancy Ruth, the first lesbian senator in Canada.

And despite fears that a Conservative government under Stephen Harper would be oppressive for queer people, that didn’t actually happen, MacDonald noted.

Canada’s political system is a brokerage one, she added, meaning we expect some ideological messaging from parties. But at the same time these parties are “big tents” that need members to coexist with those whose values don’t necessarily align with theirs in order to win the election.

“So often what we see is when you’re in opposition, you have more ideological rhetoric,” MacDonald said, pointing to some socially conservative politicians’ anti-abortion views as another example. “If you are elected, that’s often toned down.”

LGBTQ2S+ rights as a political wedge issue

Not every LGBTQ2S+ politician values sexuality and gender rights above other issues they believe in, de Silva added.

“Whether you’re a queer person or not, we have a lot of competing values, things that are more important to us,” she said.

“The thing a lot of folks are commenting on and are curious about is how does one satisfy their own personal values and beliefs with other folks who have spoken out specifically about them?... At the end of the day, that’s a question that [Sturko] needs to ask herself.”

That isn’t just the case for queer and trans politicians and voters, either. De Silva pointed to the United States, where some women identifying as “pro-choice” are Republican, the party that is dismantling their reproductive rights.

Here in British Columbia, many are concerned about the overlapping crises of drug-related deaths, housing and homelessness and climate change, de Silva says. But they’re also concerned about paying their mortgages, getting and keeping a job and being able to afford groceries.

The ability to prioritize other issues over LGBTQ2S+ liberty “is a position of privilege,” she said. “I think you see folks from more privileged backgrounds are more able or more willing to make that trade-off.”

The difference between Sturko and Conservative Party of Canada members Lantsman, Duncan and Ruth is that Sturko crossed over to a more socially conservative party, versus starting her political career with it, de Silva added.

It’s possibly the first time, too, that we have seen a Canadian politician move over to a party whose members openly targeted them for their sexuality in the recent past, MacDonald said.

“The way in which these issues are being presented right now as politicians, largely, as a wedge issue, I think we haven’t seen it in this way before,” she said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage had to argue against equality, which was difficult, MacDonald said. But now, with framing trans and queer rights using words like “woke” and “social justice warrior,” that stumbling block is gone.

“No longer are you arguing against equality; you’re arguing against ‘wokeness,’” MacDonald said. “I expect we’re going to continue to see these issues escalate and polarize.”

There is a lot of fear in the LGBTQ2S+ community across Canada right now, de Silva said, pointing to approved and proposed legislation targeting trans rights in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.

“We’re even hearing politicians at the federal level talk about using the notwithstanding clause, and what that means for marginalized communities,” she said. “For a long time there was a belief across Canada on matters of human rights that we would defer to the courts.... But we’re seeing now a shift away from that.”

The shift includes Sturko’s now negative views of SOGI 123 resources in schools. These changes are very worrisome for LGBTQ2S+ youth and families with LGBTQ2S+ kids, de Silva added.

Recent work by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service indicates those fears are grounded, referencing the 2023 stabbings of a University of Waterloo professor and two students in a gender studies class.

“CSIS assesses that the violent threat posed by the anti-gender movement is almost certain to continue over the coming year and that violent actors may be inspired by the University of Waterloo attack to carry out their own extreme violence against the 2SLGBTQIA+ community or against other targets they view as representing the gender ideology agenda,” CSIS’s “Mission Focused: Confronting the Threat Environment” report reads.

To MacDonald's memory, this threat of violence in the lead-up to the election feels new, even in a country where anti-abortion violence resulted in attempted murders.

“I’m surprised at the level of conflict over inclusion of members of the trans community, but it is real,” she said.

In light of threats here at home and across the border in the United States, many LGBTQ2S+ community members are looking for reassurance and support from politicians right now, de Silva said.

“There are folks that this is a key issue for them, that they won’t be able to vote for a party that isn’t aligned with their views on this issue,” she said.

“For other folks, they can, and I guess that’s what makes the world an interesting place is that we’re all very different.”  [Tyee]

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