School board trustees fight over nudity at gay Pride

by | Mar 24, 2014 | News

Janie Ginsberg
Life Reporter

As the summer of World Pride Toronto draws closer, a couple of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees are trying to rain on the gay parade.

The topic up for debate? Bare bums.

During a Toronto District School Board meeting on March 5, a motion was raised for consideration by trustee Sam Sotiropoulus (Ward 20), trustee John Hastings (Ward 1), and trustee Irene Atkinson (Ward 7), who has since withdrawn her support.

The written notice said the board actively participates in and promotes Toronto Pride, but there are “individuals who go about naked in public at the Toronto Pride parade which is contrary to Canadian law.”

As a result, since there is a potential for violation of public nudity laws, legal concerns are raised as well as implications having to do with age-appropriateness for TDSB students and families.

This year’s event in late June additionally brings a global presence to the occasion, as Toronto is the designated site for World Pride, which ranges over various international cities to join with local Pride celebrations.

Sean Hillier, co-chair on the board of directors for Pride Toronto, said nudity is something they do not have control over.

“Pride Toronto doesn’t regulate nudity within the parade itself, so people come and they march nude but it isn’t something we enforce or not enforce…it just happens,” he said.

Hastings supports the motion because he wants to start an open discussion about the issue.

“I’d like to see that occur, but there are certain elements in the community, that they don’t want to debate about…because they are (politically) correct about everything,” he said. “They’re completely the tolerant group, and of course they accuse somebody like myself of being intolerant – either directly or indirectly.”

The motion put forth by Sotiropoulus states “that the Chair immediately write a letter to the Mayor and City Council of Toronto asking them to clarify whether or not the public nudity law of Canada will be upheld and enforced at future Pride events in which the TDSB participates.”

As of now, the present state of the motion is in limbo.

It was supposed to be debated and voted on at the March 5 meeting but the group ran out of time, said trustee Chris Glover (Ward 2).

“It’s a motion that is before the board, the board hasn’t even dealt with it, and when it comes up, it will be shot right down,” said Ward 5 trustee Howard Kaplan.

Out of the 22 TDSB trustees, only two support this motion, and many do not believe it is the TDSB’s role to intervene.

“I don’t like the way the motion was worded because it’s asking the city to change the way that the Pride parade operates, and I really don’t think it’s the TDSB’s role to impact the way the Pride parade is done,” said Glover.

Trustee Shelley Laskin (Ward 11) finds it downright upsetting.

“It certainly doesn’t represent my view and I also feel very strongly that if this is an event held on a weekend, it’s not within school hours, parents choose to bring their kids, its up to the parents, its not up to us,” she said.

“We don’t play big brother,” Laskin said.

Trustee Pamela Gough (Ward 3) is not planning to support this motion.

“It’s not my opinion that the TDSB should be involved in telling the organizers of the Pride parade how to run the parade,” she said.

The bottom line is that this is not a school issue, it is a City of Toronto issue, said trustee Chris Bolton (Ward 10), who is also the board chair.

So what should the TDSB’s role be?

Glover said that having a discussion with the community, students, and parents about whether or not they should participate in Pride or encourage people to participate is the TDSB’s role.

But as far as us stepping in and sying that the Pride parade should change the way they operate, I don’t think that’s the way to go,” he said.

Hillier said Pride Toronto as an organization is disappointed that this motion was brought forward.

“The TDSB has marched with the Pride parade for a number of years now, and we think its really important for the TDSB to be represented due to the many issues that students face, especially LGBT students,” he said.

Trustee Maria Rodrigues (Ward 9) said they want to support their gay students, and don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.

“If people feel uncomfortable about what happens there, they don’t have to take their kids or they don’t have to go,” she said.

Many trustees not only support the parade, but have also been involved in it. Rodrigues said the majority of trustees believe in equality.

“I’ve been in the (TDSB) float myself and ever since I’ve been a trustee we’ve supported the Pride parade,” she said.

Gough said the TDSB established itself as a gay-straight alliance, and that several trustees are openly gay.

“We are a very inclusionary board…I think it’s mostly a play for attention on the part of the one trustee that drafted this motion,” she said.

After being involved in the parade for years, Bolton isn’t aware of any complications Pride has ever had from the TDSB contingent.

Trustee Rodrigues said, “Sotiropoulos is a very controversial trustee…he is trying to create a crisis when there is no crisis. I think he might be running for another division, I think he might be running for city councilor or something in the fall.”

Her interpretation is that this motion is politically motivated, and Sotiropoulos is trying to establish himself as a right-winger for City Hall.

“It’s very disappointing to have a person with these types of views, which I would say are homophobic, on the board,” Rodrigues said.

Sotiropoulos’s Twitter page is peppered with arguments about homosexism (discrimination against straight people by LGBT people), jokes about nudity at Pride, and support for “ordinary families.”

“At this point, the earliest that any motion would come to the floor of the board would be the middle of April, so that’s literally within two months of the event…so I don’t really understand what they are thinking they will accomplish,” said Bolton.

Many of the trustees agree that bringing up public nudity is a distraction from more important issues that the school board needs to deal with.

“I think we have real business at our board table and motions that simply distract from that really take away from the key work of the school board, which is, you know, the students’ well-being in school,” said Laskin.

Further support for the success of students of Somali heritage, who have a high dropout rate, is an example, said Rodrigues

“We’ve got to improve math scores of our students, we’ve got major facility concerns, we have issues of accountability that we have to look at,” said Gershon.

But the nudity issue was brought up in school because some trustees think that the law isn’t being enforced properly, said Hastings, who joined in raising the motion.

“He (Sotiropoulos) is saying that we have children that go to these events and he doesn’t want to see them subjected to nudity,” he said.

“I’m not the cops, I’m just asking that we have an honest discussion over it.”

Since technically there is a law against public nudity in Canada, it seems police turn a blind eye at Pride.

Rick De Facendis, a Justice Studies teacher at Humber College and former Peel Region police officer, said it’s all about police discretion.

“City Hall, TDSB, or the provincial government cannot guarantee that any law will be enforced or not enforced. That is at the sole and complete discretion of the police,” he said.

Essentially, drafting a letter to the mayor requesting such a promise is useless.

“Political figures cannot provide any sort of exemption without literally passing a law…that’s not happening for a gay pride event in Toronto,” said De Facendis.

In the Criminal Code, public nudity can be broken down into three sections.

“Section 174 is essentially being nude in public. Now that’s a relatively minor offense and charges are rarely laid,” said De Facendis.

Section 173 involves somebody being nude for a sexual purpose, and section 175, causing a disturbance, also applies to an indecent exhibition, he said.

These sections could all potentially apply to someone who is nude in a parade.

“It’s not simply as straight forward as having no clothes on, it’s what they are doing and who they are around when this is going on. That is why you’re never going to have the police making any guarantees about what offenses will be investigated and what charges will be laid or not,” said De Facendis.

Sotiropoulos’s main concern is that laws are being flouted.

De Facendis said the rules aren’t being bent for the Pride parade because officers have the ability to make independent decisions.

“Policing is not simply about following the rule book, its about applying the law, but doing so in a way that is contextual, so if somebody is nude at the gay Pride parade and the police don’t charge that individual it’s because they choose to exercise their discretion, it’s as simple as that,” he said.

Cathy Dandy (Ward 15) said she does not support the motion, and that she fully trusts Toronto Police to enforce the laws as they see fit.

“I have been to the Pride event with my children and saw nothing that would concern me. It’s a celebration and a lot of fun,” she said.

De Facendis said the last thing police want to do is dive into a parade and start pulling people off floats and arresting them.

“It would have to be quite a serious transgression before something like that would occur,” he said.

There is a nude bike ride in Toronto, where people ride buck naked through the downtown core. When was the last time anyone got arrested for that? asked Kaplan.

“Get a life,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me in the least, it doesn’t bother anyone else. If you don’t like it, don’t go.”

On Feb. 16, Sotiropoulos appeared as a guest on the Tarek Fatah Show podcast to discuss the issue.

“I’m not even sure how being naked is part of being gay…I get stuck on that question. Why is that a necessary element to parade naked in the streets of Toronto to express what? I’m not sure. Except for the flouting of the laws of this country,” he said.

Andrew Tibbetts, a Humber counselor who works with the Gender and Sexual Diversity Committee, said nudity is important because it reminds us that gay and lesbian issues fundamentally relate to sex and love, and therefore the body.

“The history of Pride is as a sexual liberation movement,” said Sean Hillier, co-chair of Pride Toronto. “It started from the bathhouse raids where people did march nude in the streets after hundreds of gay men were arrested by the Toronto Police in the 1980s.”

The answer to Sotiropoulos’s question is that the connection between nudity and being LGBTQ is rooted in history.

“It is a sign and a symbol of the fact that members of the LGBTQ community and people of all stripes and colours have had their sexuality placed back into the closet by society, and this is a time for them to reclaim their sexuality,” said Hillier.

Nude attendees are not going door-to-door exposing themselves – they are walking down a massive gay pride route full of supporters.

“Millions of people come from around the world to see this parade, so we’re doing something right with it,” said Tibbetts. “The police do their job really well, they keep that parade safe…and for many years now they march in it.

“I think this is one instance where the police are being incredibly sensitive to the needs of the community and its allies,” he said.

De Facendis has been to the parade as a spectator.

“At the end of the day most people are there to have fun and everybody takes it in the spirit in which it’s intended,“ he said.

“You’re always going to have people who are going to be less than thrilled with the open display of that kind of lifestyle, but we live in a liberal society now and people should just accept the fact that we’re all equal,” De Facendis said. “At the end of the day it’s one day on a weekend in the summertime and we should all try to get along as best we can.”