Oh, Canada

A controversy is simmering in Toronto over Israel, Palestinians, Gay Pride, outing, and media ethics.  Who can resist a media scandal like this?

From what I can piece together, it started when a pro-Palestine (or anti-Israel, depending on your take)–Queers Against Israeli Apartheid–were allowed to participate in Toronto’s Gay Pride parade.  Bernie Farber, a prominent Jewish and pro-Israel activist and head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, protested the anti-Israel group’s participation and decided to march himself.  He joined the march wearing a “Nobody Knows I’m Gay” t-shirt.

Farber’s criticism of the anti-Israel group’s participating in gay pride resulted in a cheeky response to a commenter by Toronto Star blogger Antonia Zerbisias “outing” Ferber as gay, even though he isn’t.

Yes, Susan, imagine my surprise when I saw Bernie Farber identifying himself as queer by joining a pro-Israel gay rights group in the parade. Funny because I had never seen him in the march before. Funny because I didn’t know he was gay.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

He even posted a picture of himself, and on Twitter wrote:

”Pride just finishe, great day to be a Jew and Zionist in Toronto
1:18 PM Jun 28th from mobile web ”

The comment elicited a response from Farber and a letter to the Toronto Star, objecting to his “outing” and questioning whether the paper should disclose who is participating in the Gay Pride parade. The letter prompted a scolding from the paper’s Ombudsman Kathy English.

First, this column is intended to address publicly the valid concerns of the Canadian Jewish Congress, whose chief executive officer, Bernie Farber, was the subject of a Zerbisias blog post that was tasteless and fell short of the Star‘s standards of fairness, accuracy and civility. That’s a view shared by publisher John Cruickshank.

Second, this incident underscores the pressing need for clear “rules of engagement” for Starjournalists using social media tools such as blogs and Twitter, where a no-holds-barred style of “new journalism” is emerging.

And here’s a section relating to the “outing.”

Farber is not gay, as was made clear in several subsequent comments Zerbisias herself allowed to be posted on her blog. Those commenters praised the CJC head for being “gay positive.”

Zerbisias knows Farber is not gay. She says she intended the post to be “ironic” and she expected he would know that.

Understandably, Farber doesn’t accept that. Further, I think Zerbisias’s ambiguous words forced him into the awkward position of having to make clear that he is not gay, while also affirming that “I take no offence at being misidentified as gay.

“I am offended, however, at the fact that a professional journalist would simply make up information of any sort and post it publicly,” he said.

The controversy has garnered significant attention from all sides, with a healthy dose of criticism being placed on both the Ombudsman and the blogger. Not to be outdone, the National Review’s Mark Steyn chimed in rehashing his run-ins with Farber relating to hate speech and his beefs with the newspaper.

For a Yankee, it’s hard to completely understand the dynamics of the personalities and the intracicies of Canadian politics as it relates to Israel. The Ombudsman’s criticism did raise interesting questions about how bloggers engage their readers–and the limits of irony and sarcasm as rhetorical tools–but the suggestion that calling someone “gay” somehow results in a grievance when the (a) the comment was made in jest (b) the outed individual is pro-gay and (c) the outed individual was wearing a t-shirt saying “Nobody Know’s I’m Gay” seems to be a bit overdone.

2 Responses

  1. The most important part of this story was only mentioned at the very end, as an afterthought.

    Bernie Farber was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned “Nobody knows I’m gay”, which is what provoked Antonia Zerbisias to jokingly comment, “I didn’t know he was gay.”

    So it wasn’t an outing at all. It was a tongue in cheek comment about Farber falsely representing himself as gay at the parade. Farber failed to mention what he wore in his letter to the Star, and the Star’s public editor failed to mention the t-shirt in her column.

  2. That’s a good point, and a point emphasized by those criticizing the newspaper. Farber appears to have gone on the attack–suggesting he’d been harmed–yet everyone seems to know that it wasn’t a real “outing.” I’m not sure the Ombudsman did the paper a service in her criticism, although I do think she raised valid points regarding how staffers interact with commenters.

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