The Chat with Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo

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This week we’re in conversation with political trailblazer Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo, whose memoir, The Queer Evangelist, (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press this spring.

Quill & Quire says, “At a time when many people identify as spiritual but struggle to translate belief to the real world, DiNovo’s experiences and insights provide us with a divinely inspired practical purpose.”

Cheri DiNovo grew up in Toronto in a rooming house owned by her parents and spent time on the streets as a teenager, leading her to social activism. Formerly a member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, she is host of The Radical Reverend Show, and Minister at Trinity St. Paul's Centre for Faith Justice and the Arts. Her book Qu(e)erying Evangelism: Growing a Community from the Outside In won the Lambda award in 2005. She has won numerous awards for her activism and is a Member of the Order of Canada.

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Trevor Corkum: The Queer Evangelist tells the story of your rise as a young activist to your storied career in politics, with many stops in between. Why was it time to write this particular book?

Cheri DiNovo: I'd been working on a memoir for a while and felt it was time to tell my story, now that I'd left political life and re-entered church life. I hadn't read a memoir that I felt was brutally honest about what it's like to serve in elected office but also gave hope that in elected office you could actually change laws and through that save lives.

It was important to let young women (cis/trans/nonbinary/queer) know that you could survive and thrive. It was important to tell street kids there was hope for them. It was also important to let socialists know you can support both reform and revolution.

TC: One of the key message is our own power to make lasting social change, something you were able to do throughout your career. What would you say to young people despairing of the world as it is today?

CDN: Most people of any age have no conception of their own power. You can change laws and influence political direction but you need to know how. I highlight change makers to give some examples of those who stood on principle and were tireless and effective. I don't sugarcoat the impediments of the political process and the challenges that activists face but I also believe that revolution is possible and in fact, necessary.

I also make clear how necessary activism is, and that it is the young who have the most to lose and gain from change or the lack of it. Courage become easier after you've met resistance and overcome it. In 1971 with the "We Demand" first "gay" demonstration on Parliament Hill (being the only woman to sing on) we were a band of utopian hippies. Every single one of our demands have since been won. There are numerous examples of such wins throughout history. In fact, it's utopian to believe things will remain as they are.

TC: There are also so many powerful tributes to queer and feminist heroes you’ve known along the journey. How does it feel to know that you’re included by many as hero for your trailblazing work on behalf of queer and marginalized communities?

CDN: I don't know about myself as hero (or queero) but I do want other women and marginalized people to get written back into history, which tends to be written only by white, cis-gendered men. Let's hear the history of the margins, not of the powerful.

TC: Is there a particular victory during your time in politics that is most meaningful to you, several years out from your retirement?

CDN: I don't feel as if I've retired from political life, just stepped back from electoral politics. I'm still an activist on a daily basis (just follow my Twitter:) and sermons.
I suppose banning conversion therapy in a matter of weeks in Ontario back in 2015, now that we see the years it's taken to make anything happen federally. Although Toby's Law, named after our trans music director, adding Trans Rights to our Ontario Human Rights Code, which took years, was also critically important. Both bills were alone and first in North America. I'm also proud of working across political difference to get laws changed and lives saved.

TC: Finally, what challenges and inspirations do you find now in your new role as Minister at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice, and the Arts?

Church, and all inclusive faith institutions, is about learning to love each other and setting up a model for what community could look like. That's the plus. Of course, faith institutions are filled with humans not angels, so the same misogynies, homo/bi/transphobias, classism, racism, are also part of all faith institutions makeup.
The challenge here, as it is everywhere, is to progress beyond that—to follow the divine call to love others as ourselves. It isn't easy  but it's absolutely worth it.

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Excerpt from The Queer Evangelist

There’s an old saying, “If you’re going to dine with the Devil, you’d better have a very long spoon.” The maneuvering included timing the introduction of bills, getting the press involved if an important human rights bill wasn’t going to be put forward, and as always bringing activist pressure to bear on the process. It all took a lot of work and my terrific team to carry it off. In that regard, politics, like most careers, involves, well, politics. Once you lose your idealism about partisanship, you can actually accomplish an amazing amount on behalf of the marginalized. As a socialist, I should have had no illusions about capitalist governments, and I only really harboured any when I was new. I tried to be upfront with stakeholders and let them know why I’d bring some bills forward for second reading and not others. I knew which bills had any hope of becoming law. With experience, I developed the ability to feel the mood and read the powers that be in terms of timing. I knew which cabinet members wanted to make names for themselves by supporting a bill, and when. Was it my business background or my street background that provided this insight? Who knows? Perhaps it was the same drive that had kept me alive throughout both. All I know for sure is that if someone of any party wanted to be seen as progressive, I was only too happy to assist in their quest.

Once you lose your idealism about partisanship, you can actually accomplish an amazing amount on behalf of the marginalized.

Realizing that politics, like most pursuits, is profoundly patriarchal in both structure and makeup helped. Women work by negotiating. Men function by competing. We’re conditioned that way. Understanding these tendencies helped in reading situations. From the frightening narcotics officers to bombastic politicians, I’d been dealing with men in a man’s world for a long time. I recall one instance when I was the party’s Whip that particularly illustrated the difference. During a minority government, every vote counted, and my job as Whip became more intense. On a Thursday afternoon when most members were back in their districts and only those who had to be there were, something unusual started to transpire. All of a sudden, Government Members began to trickle in. It wasn’t even vote time. What was happening?

The male mode for management in my experience was competitive, aggressive. Don’t trust anyone. Assume the other party will always lie to you. Return the favour. If you did bargain, it was to screw them before they could screw you. Better to walk away than to lose face. The opposition role was purely to make the government look bad, and that effort took precedence over getting anything done. This is played out all the time, everywhere, around the world. Though it may be astounding to many, there is an alternative.

The opposition role was purely to make the government look bad, and that effort took precedence over getting anything done. This is played out all the time, everywhere, around the world. Though it may be astounding to many, there is an alternative.

So back to my own little goldfish pond, on that Thursday it was clear something was happening. I asked the Conservative Whip what he thought was going on. He was a hilarious man, who had once said getting arrested for a DUI in his riding would help him get re-elected. His answer was, “We don’t know, but I assume they’re going to table some bill or ram something through. They’re probably going to catch us with no one here and call a vote.” Remember, the real fear was with enough votes they could get just about anything done. Operating under that assumption, the Conservatives were already calling their Members in—they too started arriving.

I then went to the Government Whip and asked him the same question: “Why are you calling all your members in? What’s happening?” This was something the Conservative Whip didn’t think of doing. Or other men. After all, why would the Government Whip tell the truth? Who tells the truth in politics? The Government Whip saw himself as a feminist and a progressive. He liked to be seen as non-partisan, and I knew this. It’s important to know Government Members at some personal level. That’s how I could get bills moving on behalf of those who needed action. “We’re not sure,” he replied. “We think the Conservatives have some nasty bill they’re trying to force a vote on and want to surprise us. So we need backup.” Then I did a very vulnerable thing in politics: I told him the truth. “You’re both scared of the same thing, and no one has anything planned. Just a silly rumour.” Within minutes the Liberals left. They were followed soon after by the Conservatives. Everyone was relieved they could go home.

It’s important to know Government Members at some personal level. That’s how I could get bills moving on behalf of those who needed action.

Acting out of fear and distrust gets so tiring. In truth, individual Members who had taken an average of seven years out of the most productive time in their careers felt stuck, and were. Those who came from law might have to start a whole new practice when they left politics. Those from other fields might feel they were too old or too partisan to go back. As one lobbyist described it, Members carried with them the “partisan stench.” Great if their party was in government, but not so much if they weren’t. Members, in short, are vulnerable. There is a real cost for entering public service, and Members don’t take chances in an atmosphere like that. You were discouraged from fraternizing with your enemies. You could party with them, but God forbid you tell them the truth.

Excerpted from The Queer Evangelist. Copyright © 2021 Cheri DiNovo, published with permission of Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

 

July 13, 2021
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