When a guy in a green “straight pride” shirt was photographed with a Stampede-going Premier Danielle Smith, Albertans saw in it whatever they wanted to see.
Detractors of Smith and the grinning dude’s shirt found the message disparagingly dismissive of the struggles that have necessitated the LGBTQ movement, and saw a premier potentially dog-whistling her support of that dismissiveness.
Supporters — of the shirt’s message, at least — found nothing wrong with the shirt, or of being proud of heterosexuality. Then, they howled upon seeing a premier they generally backed state she supports the LGBTQ community, hadn’t read the guy’s shirt and “obviously doesn’t agree with its message.” An apology, of sorts.
Emblematic of the online backlash she faced on that side was the wearer of the shirt himself: “I’m pretty sad that she caved,” the fellow told a YouTube interviewer the following week.
Where he was being interviewed is instructive: at a rally dubbed “Leave Our Kids Alone,” for Calgarians opposed to teaching about LGBTQ in schools and gender transitioning services for youth. A rally speaker praised the “straight pride” guy and criticized the premier’s statement distancing herself from that shirt’s message, even if the speaker professed “love” for Smith and urged others to give her a chance.
This may be a fringe protest, but it’s part of a wider movement in international right-wing circles, the likes of which Premier Smith normally travels in.
There’s a rising tide of both right-wing activism and political policy specifically against transgender rights and opportunities for youth to receive gender-affirming care or be protected from discrimination. It spans from Jordan Peterson podcasts and many in the freedom convoy movement, to anti-trans bills in several Republican states like Florida and South Carolina, as well as a contentious policy in New Brunswick.
She was fully with them in the fight against COVID rules and vaccination mandates. But where this movement shifted toward divisive action and heightened rhetoric on LGBTQ and particularly trans issues, Smith has taken the off-ramp.
She doesn’t fit into critics’ right-wing caricature on this score.
Whether this is due to political pragmatism, personal relationships, her own live-and-let-live libertarian ideology — or, likely, a complex mixture of factors — she just isn’t going to the polarizing place so many like-minded figures in politics have gone.
On the flip side, however, her government hasn’t done or promised much to enhance protections to the communities, or rolled back past policy reforms the United Conservative Party brought in under Jason Kenney. The only discernible action Smith has taken was keeping Lacombe–Ponoka MLA Jennifer Johnson out of her party caucus after it was revealed that as a candidate she had publicly compared trans kids to feces in food.
But this lack of action also serves as a resistance of sorts to what’s happening elsewhere in parts of conservative North America — compared to Premier Blaine Higgs’s contentious reforms to student pronoun policy in New Brunswick schools, or the ban on gender-affirming care for minors and the “Don’t Say Gay” law on classroom instruction in Florida, whose Gov. Ron DeSantis the Alberta premier has lionized.
In fact, when Smith has been invited or virtually goaded to delve into more provocative rhetoric on transgender issues, she’s outright refused.
Last August, when an Alberta separatist group co-sponsored the UCP leadership race to replace Kenney, its moderator asked about teaching gender diversity, surgery and trans athletes. Two rivals, Brian Jean and Todd Loewen, were more forceful and drew more applause for their firmer answers on school policy and rigidly biological gender rules in sport. Smith was far more equivocal, and even pushed back on the question.
“I have a non-binary family member, and I believe these decisions are very personal, and it should not be debated in public,” Smith said. “We shouldn’t be making any child feel like the issues they’re struggling with are something that’s a political football.”
Smith did suggest some consideration about who’s allowed to play in women’s sports, but it was cautious enough that Jean later swiped at her in a fundraising letter: “Danielle Smith was the only candidate in attendance who said biological men should be allowed to participate in women’s sports in some instances.“
Peterson v. Smith
Weeks after becoming premier last fall, Smith did a podcast interview with Peterson, the social critic who became famous for opposing preferential gender pronouns and perennially rails on trans issues.
After the psychologist’s lengthy question about identity politics and societal family norms, Smith stressed the importance of conservatives making the coalition broad and welcoming. She praised the wide public acceptance of same-sex marriage and parenthood, as well as the number of gay conservative staffers.
“We actually have a transgender woman who heads up our chief firearms office in Alberta,” Smith told Peterson.
“I’m very proud of the conservative movement and how inclusive it is and I want to make sure we remain that inclusive,” she said to the interviewer, who has a history of being at odds with that concept.
At a Medicine Hat forum during May’s provincial election, Smith continued along this vein, bemoaning “10 years of polarization” on LGBTQ issues, and stressed that adults should be “supportive” of kids as they struggle with their identity and sexuality.
She added that her chief of staff is gay, and highlighted that one premier’s office communications staffer does double duty as outreach officer who meets with LGBTQ organizations and youth leaders (though her office would not specify which groups he’s met with).
Edmonton AM2:48UCP candidate who compared transgender children to feces in food wins seat
And this month, when a reporter asked her to weigh in on the New Brunswick policy, Smith responded that she wished everyone would “depoliticize” the issue.
“I think it’s very damaging for kids to have this playing out in the public realm,” she said.
There are those on the right who are alarmed by the idea of accommodating young people’s gender transitions or making youth feel safe when grappling with these changes, but Smith doesn’t appear to be, said Corinne Mason, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Mount Royal University.
“Maybe she’s not as scared of the demographic shift as the people doing this really aggressive anti-trans vitriol in this moment,” they said. “She sees perhaps an opportunity to expand the tent of the conservative base because she’s seeing a shift, and other folks are really like doing their classic ‘stand your ground.'”
Mason also highlights the many ways the premier falls short of truly supporting the LGBTQ community she says she wants to embrace. Smith chronically sidesteps opportunities to actually say how she’ll better protect rights or youth, or to forcefully condemn egregious acts like that “straight pride” shirt or Jennifer Johnson’s remarks or the protests at drag events, Mason noted.
The alarmism and threats against trans people make this a time for action, not backing off, Mason said.
“This is a politicized moment,” they said.
Core beliefs, base beliefs
One wonders, though, how far Smith can go without creating splits within the UCP base, which includes a good number of social conservatives and those who may not have seen much wrong with a “straight pride” shirt.
In October, UCP grassroots members overwhelmingly passed a policy resolution to strengthen parents’ ability to affirm a child’s gender identity, though the Smith government hasn’t acted on that wish.
David Parker, the head of UCP pressure group Take Back Alberta, teed off last month about LGBTQ issues at a “Leave Our Kids Alone” rally.
“We will not be shaken until this ideology is out of our schools,” he said.
These matters clouded much of Smith’s days leading the Wildrose Party. Her 2012 election campaign was sunk by an Edmonton candidate’s inflammatory comments that gays would suffer afterlife in a “lake of fire,” and Smith’s subsequent refusal to sanction him. She tried mending fences with the community by attending Pride events, but toward the end of her Wildrose leadership, party members repealed a statement on equal rights for those of any sexual orientation, a pointed rebuke to Smith’s position.
Mercedes Allen, a co-founder of Trans Equality Society of Alberta, recalls meeting Smith in her Wildrose days. Smith had expressed that she wanted to be an LGBTQ ally, trans people included, Allen recalls.
“I think that she genuinely meant it,” she said. “But at the same time, you can’t just declare being an ally. A person has to demonstrate that and follow through.”
Allen was disappointed by the several days Smith dithered before making a final decision on the UCP’s Lacombe candidate’s egregiously anti-trans comments. Party insiders widely expect Smith and caucus to allow Johnson back into the UCP fold after excluding her initially, a move that would offend many in the LGBTQ community.
A broad mandate
Smith instructed Culture Minister Tanya Fir in a mandate letter to continue ” to support and engage with members of Alberta’s Francophone and LGBTQ+ communities.”
Requests to interview Fir, Smith and outreach lead Nick Kalynchuk were denied. But in a provided statement Fir said “the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community still faces discrimination, and targeted violence,” and “Alberta’s government will work tirelessly to ensure we build safe communities in which all individuals are free to be their true authentic selves.”
It’s not clear what any of that will mean in terms of policy — yet at the same time Smith has given zero indication of any desire to follow the wishes of the world’s Jordan Petersons, David Parkers or Ron DeSantises on this issue.
There are Edmonton and Calgary Pride festivals in the next couple of months. Smith’s presence or absence at those events will speak volumes, but two sides of a polarizing issue will want to know what Smith has for them beyond gestures and words.