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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 26, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 34
Jack Layton, Canadian politician and ally of LGBT community, dies
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Jack Layton, Canadian politician and ally of LGBT community, dies

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Jack Layton, the leader of Canada's New Democratic Party and a long-time ally of his country's LGBT community, died on August 22.

Only 61 at the time of his death, Layton announced in 2010 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Nevertheless, he led his party in a whirlwind 2011 election campaign, almost tripling the number of seats the NDP controlled in Canada's parliament.

Layton's political career began in 1982 when he was elected to the Toronto City Council with strong support from the local LGBT community.

From 1985 to 1991 Layton chaired Toronto's Board of Health, overseeing the city's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including safer-sex education and free distribution of condoms.

'We had calls at the time for closing the bathhouses and talking about abstinence and absolutely not handing out condoms,' Layton told Xtra magazine in a 2006 interview. 'So we went on a very active campaign specifically to hand out condoms and to make sure that public education was going on in the bathhouses.'

While he chaired the Board of Health, Layton was an outspoken advocate for anonymous HIV testing. At the time, provincial law banned anonymous testing and required positive HIV test results to be reported to the Ministry of Health.

At Layton's urging, both the Toronto City Council and the Board of Health called on Ontario Province to change the law. The law was eventually changed in 1991 after a change in government.

In May 1987 Layton called for Toronto to spend $2.1 million on a special AIDS defense team. It is the first time any such plan has been proposed by municipal government.

At his 1988 wedding to Olivia Chow, Layton said he hoped to see the day when his Gay and Lesbian friends would be free to marry legally. Seventeen years later, he would cast one of the crucial votes for marriage equality in Parliament.

In his first speech to the federal parliament in 2004 Layton called for marriage equality, and denounced Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin for failing to support it.

By the time a marriage equality bill was introduced in 2005, Layton was leader of the NDP and became the only party leader to 'whip' the bill - in other words, to require his members to vote for it.

Lesbian member of parliament and NDP deputy leader Libby Davies recalled that Layton was insistent that NDP members vote for marriage equality.

'Once he became leader, we were going through the whole same-sex marriage debate,' Davies said. 'I always remember that Paul Martin, by contrast, said that it was a free vote in the Liberals, because he said it was a matter of conscience, and I remember Jack said it's not a matter of conscience. It's a matter of human rights, and you will vote for this.

'This is our party policy, this is what we believe in, and if you don't vote for it, there will be consequences, and there were, because as you remember, one of our members did not vote for the bill, and he disciplined her.'

NDP member Bev Desjarlais voted against the bill, was relieved of her party duties, and eventually was forced out of the NDP caucus.

With a final vote of 158 for the bill and 133 against, the NDP's bloc vote for marriage equality was widely credited with providing the margin of victory.

Canada's marriage equality bill became law on July 20, 2005, after passing the Senate and receiving royal assent.

In a letter to the country he wrote for distribution after his death, Layton said he was optimistic for Canada's future because the NDP offered voters a real choice.

'Canada is a great country,' he wrote, 'one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one - a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world's environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change.'

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