Anita Bryant (Wikimedia Commons)

Is Jason Kenney turning into “the Anita Bryant of Canada?”

If you’re of a certain age, you won’t be able to forget Bryant, even if you wish you could. A popular singer and one-time Miss Oklahoma, she was best known for touting Florida orange juice until she became synonymous in the late 1970s with what we nowadays call homophobia.

Bryant’s international notoriety was the direct result of “Save Our Children,” her campaign in the Miami area to overturn a Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Thanks to her efforts, there’s a generation of now-retiring North Americans who can’t say “a day without orange juice is like a day without Florida sunshine” without snorting their lattes all over their laptops.

If you’re young enough never to have experienced a world without the Internet, it was as if Bryant, now 77, had become a one-woman meme and avatar, long before such things even existed, for anti-gay bigotry. She was regularly savaged on Saturday Night Live back before it stopped being funny until Donald Trump Made it Great Again.

Kenney, of course, is the newly elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, which used to occupy the vast political middle ground of Alberta.

He proposes to take the PC party out with the trash, roll it into the even-more-right-wing Wildrose Party and use the new further-right Frankenparty spawned by this unwholesome union to knock off Premier Rachel Notley’s social democratic NDP government.

This will be remarkably easy to do, according to Kenney, who was one of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief lieutenants back in the heady days when the House of Commons was Tory blue and “inclusive” was a four-letter word in official Canada.

Now, Kenney is known to hold strong social conservative views, some of them apparently not so far removed from Bryant’s. But his greatest political successes have, in fact, been as an Astro-Turf installer for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a master dog-whistler, able to silently communicate one message to his so-con supporters and another aloud to the rest of us using the same subtly coded language.

So perhaps it was overconfidence about the task ahead that led Kenney to openly tell the Calgary Herald editorial board that while he might not repeal the Jim-Prentice PCs’ 2015 law requiring students to be permitted to form gay-straight alliances at school if they see the need, their parents should be notified if they sign up.

Everybody — including Kenney, obviously — understands the effect of such a policy, as the Globe and Mail’s Tabitha Southey cleverly put it, would be “basically just telling the kids that the GSAs are going to go live on a farm now, and no, you can’t visit them.”

“Few teenagers, straight or gay, are going to join, let alone start a GSA if it means a teacher is going to call their parents,” Southey explained for those unable to get the painfully obvious. “Teacher/parent phone calls are a kid’s kryptonite.”

That aside, everybody also understands the collateral damage for some young people would be grim, possibly fatal.

In addition, Kenney apparently didn’t think about what this policy might do the teaching staff’s workload when those of us who don’t care if our kids join a GSA, but would be extremely concerned if they joined the Wildrose Club or, God forbid, Junior Achievement, also demand prompt notification.

But the real similarity between Kenney and Bryant, of course, is the international reaction the new PC leader’s GSA commentary is now beginning to provoke.

Presumably, Kenney was so busy thinking about the potential of homophobia as a way to wedge a few votes from the NDP that he didn’t contemplate being turned, personally, into an international laughingstock.  

No sooner had his deep thoughts about GSAs exited his mouth than k.d. lang, the popular singer-songwriter who puts a new spin on anti-capitalism, sent out a Tweet, in effect demanding that Kenney state his own sexual preference.

In most circumstances, most of us would think this is nobody’s business, and offensive to boot. But under the circumstances — a social-conservative politician proposing to out young people interested in a GSA for whatever reason — there was a kind of rough justice to her shot.

Lang is an Albertan, of course, not just some celebrity from away. So she has a stake in the place just like the rest of us. She also commands an international following, so other voices were bound to begin chiming in, even if the openly pro-Kenney local media did its best to rig for silent running.

Boy George, the English singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in the 80s, Tweeted his own jibe at Kenney — whom he declared “#creepy” — after seeing the story on PinkNews, a British online publication written for an LGBTQ audience.

Perez Hilton, the Hollywood gossip blogger, commented as well with a link to the same source: “I care about what happens in Canada too! THIS IS SO DAMAGING to vulnerable youth!!”

There was also a celebrity reaction here in Canada. Dragon’s Den TV personality Arlene Dickinson and high-profile comedian Rick Mercer expressed similar sentiments on social media, Mercer more than once.

That’s just six Tweets, I grant you. But I’d bet money it’s only a matter of time before there’s a lot more and Kenney is undeniably an international embarrassment.

This may actually help Kenney in the darkest corners of the Alberta conservative movement’s base, of course.

But will it really help with severely normal Alberta voters, 2017 style, if Kenney turns into Canada’s Anita Bryant, still pounding a pulpit that seemed pathetic even back in 1977? Not so much, probably. 

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog,


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David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...