Diversity at U of T: Celebrating Sexual Diversity

January 2004

Last Spring I attended an event celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Sexual Diversity Studies Program based at University College. On that occasion, most of the speeches and comments were typical of such celebratory affairs and appropriately so. However, something occurred during the reception that caused me to think more deeply about the impact of such a program as SDS on our University. An alumnus who had attended the University of Toronto some thirty years ago engaged me in conversation. He remarked that the entire event would have been unthinkable when he was a student at the University. For him, "coming out" at the University of Toronto thirty years ago was impossible, whereas he thought that now it would be impossible for him not to do so.

In light of his comments, I began to think of my own commitment to the civil rights movement in the 1960s and how the public's perception of racial minorities had changed in the intervening years. This raised the natural question of how much our campus had changed in our collective attitudes towards persons of different sexual orientations, especially in light of the recent national debate over same‑sex marriages. Would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer (LGBTQ) student entering the University of Toronto this fall feel as comfortable 'out' as heterosexuals are about themselves?

I believe that in several respects the University of Toronto has made great progress. Apart from the existence of the SDS program itself, which fulfils an academic need identified by faculty and students, the University has developed helpful and supportive policies and offices ‑ including one devoted to LGBTQ issues. If anything is needed now, it is to move beyond the institutional level of acceptance to broaden awareness and to celebrate sexual diversity on our campuses in much the same way that we celebrate our remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity.

The University of Toronto is about diversity in all of its dimensions. This is, and will continue to be, a major source of its strength. The University is a major centre in Canada for knowledge and creativity. By creating a community of people with varied backgrounds, we provide an ideal setting for education and for academic breakthroughs that can enhance the quality of life for all of our citizens.

American academic Richard Florida has coined the term "creative class" to describe a class that ranges from scientists to workers in information technology to artists and writers who through their interactions create new ideas, new technologies and new creative content. He has rated the economic success of American cities based on their abilities to appeal to this new class and use their presence to their advantage. In Florida's words, "talented people seek an environment open to differences. Many highly creative people, regardless of ethnic background or sexual orientation, grew up feeling like outsiders, different in some way from most of their schoolmates. When they are sizing up a new company and community, acceptance of diversity and of gays in particular is a sign that reads 'non‑standard people welcome here.'" The cities that rate highest on Florida's creativity rankings are all places that foster creativity, and respect individuality and diversity as well as merit. Inevitably, they have thriving LGBTQ communities. The City of Toronto and the University of Toronto are, and must continue to be, similarly welcoming environments.

I believe that as an institution of higher education, we have an obligation to show leadership in areas where the general public may lag behind. This was the case during the era of civil rights, and it is the case today as we address issues of gender and sexuality. We cannot let controversy or inflexible opinions deter us from raising awareness and promoting understanding. Our campus must be an inclusive and welcoming community, and it must be so in full awareness of our religiously pluralistic environment. We can have diversity within diversity by being respectful of each other. At the same time, we can learn much more about what it is to be human by understanding humanity in all of its rich variety. In the process we can become an even greater university.

Indeed, the University of Toronto has been a social leader on these questions: witness the recent national debate on same‑sex marriages. The University's institutional position on the matter has largely been defined because of actions taken over the past ten years as we have extended employee benefits to same‑sex couples in the same way that they are available to common‑law partners. In 1991, the University voluntarily added health coverage and the tuition waiver programs to same‑sex partners, and in 1994/95, extended the equivalent of survivor benefits to surviving same‑sex partners. Initially these benefits had to come from outside of the Pension Plan because of government pension plan restrictions that were not amended until 2000. Clearly, the University of Toronto was out in front of government in its recognition of these basic principles. Today many people on campus believe that society should both cherish and solemnize long‑term, committed loving relationships between two people, whether of the same or the opposite sex. Of course, not everyone in the University community shares this position ‑ it is in the very nature of any university worthy of the name that it would be home to dissenting views.

The University of Toronto in almost all respects is a very civil place. Nevertheless, there has been an uneven acceptance of alternative sexual orientations across, and within, our three campuses. We have had incidents of homophobia, more persistent in some areas of the university than in others. Though our policies offer protection against discrimination and attempt to engender acceptance and understanding, we need to educate our community continually to the advantages of inclusiveness while at the same time condemning any acts of exclusion. Admittedly, social change is difficult and complex; but, no individuals associated with our University should feel that they are any less than full members of our community. We, as a community of students and teachers and staff, must set a precedent for the rest of society by recognizing ‑ and celebrating ‑ our diversity as one of our greatest strengths.