My anticipation for the new baseball season was interrupted last week when I saw a new Rogers commercial for the Samsung Galaxy S9 repeatedly. The company, which owns the Toronto Blue Jays and Sportsnet, the primary network for Jays games, engaged in some corporate synergy by featuring Toronto centrefielder Kevin Pillar, wearing his Blue Jays uniform, as part of the ad. The thrust of the commercial is that while fans can’t match Pillar’s incredible on field acrobatics, they can be “just like Kevin Pillar” with a Samsung phone and free charging dock.
What bothered me was not an athlete featured in advertising nor Rogers using its various properties for cross promotion, but the phrase “just like Kevin Pillar”. To suggest being like Kevin Pillar is something desirable, less than a year after Pillar called pitcher Jason Motte a faggot during a May 2017 game in Atlanta, seems deliberately obtuse on the part of Rogers.
Most Jays fans consider Pillar’s use of a homophobic slur a thing of the past and a matter clearly resolved. For his part, Pillar was apologetic the next day, if not deeply sorry than at least more contrite than other athletes who have committed similar transgressions. Many chose to accept his apology without reservation, as he both admitted his fault and acknowledged and specifically apologized to the LGBTQ community. Others were eager for Pillar to redeem himself as an ally. Some were heartened that Pillar directed his forfeited salary to LGBTQ-specific charities (PFLAG and YCP) all while pledging to use the moment for growth, learning, and to be an example moving forward.
This is not to rehash the events of last spring, nor do I have any desire to put Pillar through the wringer again for the same offense. However, the Rogers ad and the “just like Kevin Pillar” tagline create an opportunity to re-evaluate if player and team have made good on promises to be better allies. Pillar stated in his apology that using a homophobic slur was “not who I am” (except, obviously it was as he did in fact call someone a faggot) and that he wanted “to be used as an example” not just of how to respond after making such a mistake but how to act in allyship as a cis and straight person going forward.
Simply put, it is hard to find concrete examples of Pillar’s improved allyship with the queer community. Despite reports, he did not “donate” money to LGBTQ charities; rather he directed the salary he forfeited from his two-game suspension for using the slur (and perhaps the undisclosed team fine he had to pay) to LGBTQ ally organizations. That’s not charity, but punishment. The result is the same, money going to LGBTQ ally organizations, but it doesn’t reflect growth on Pillar’s part.
In addition, directing funds to the Toronto chapters of PFLAG or YCP is not the same as sending funds directly to local queers. While both organizations involve LGBTQ folks at various levels, they were also both conceived as ally-organizations; in other words, organizations in which cis and straight allies play considerable roles. There is nothing inherently wrong with organizations that unite LGBTQ individuals and non-queers who wish to act in allyship; in the case of PFLAG, working to ensure queer youth have familial support from non-queer relations is an admirable goal. But LGBTQ2IA groups that emphasize the role of non-queer allies are the organizations that cishet “allies” pivot to when in damage control. Athletes love to drop a “donation” or direct funds to YCP especially and that connection to YCP, however superficial or purchased, helps clear the offending athlete of further consequences.
Toronto has many LGBTQ-led social justice initiatives Pillar could have directed financial support to had he done a bit more research. If he wanted to direct his forfeited pay to local queer sports initiatives as he suggested when explaining the YCP funding, his dollars might have been better spent directly supporting queer athletes at one of Toronto’s many LGBTQ2IA sports organizations. He could still do these things if he wants to engage in meaningful acts of allyship. By donating money directly to You Can Play, Pillar reinforces the role that YCP has as a financial clearinghouse and shield for cishet apologies in sports.
Pillar’s other notable act of queer allyship last season was catching a ceremonial first pitch thrown by Michelle Cherny, Pride Toronto’s treasurer, to mark the start of Pride Month in the city. Discussing both the slur and his involvement in LGBTQ “outreach” like catching a pitch to mark Pride Month, Pillar told the New York Times “I definitely want to make some good come of it, but I don’t want this to be something that defines me….I don’t want it to be something that needs to be a story all season long. At the same time, I don’t want just issue an apology, but to go out and do things that are important for myself and this organization to show that what happened was an honest mistake….It doesn’t define my character or the beliefs of this organization”.
It is hard, as a queer person, to read those remarks and not see the conflict in Pillar, between being a force for positive change and the potential benefit acts of allyship provide him. True allyship takes many forms, but none of those forms involve merely catching a ceremonial pitch because you’ve calculated it will help you publicly move on from an act of hate speech so you can just play ball.
Pillar’s homophobia is neither unique nor original in baseball or in sport. I have little hope he will follow up on his lofty words of allyship if only because the struggle to make sports queer inclusive is a persistent and endemic problem greater than Pillar himself. Pillar’s situation interests me because he pledged to be better. That requires action, and there is scant evidence that he has followed through on his promise or taken any meaningful action. I am not shocked that Rogers has deemed him marketable — he was widely forgiven for the slur last season and his defensive exploits on the field are always highlight-worthy. I do not want to prevent him from capitalizing on his talent. I simply want him to be held accountable for the pledge he made to be a better ally.
The failure to hold him accountable falls on many sources not the least of which is the organization itself. The Blue Jays are a homophobic team with a lengthy history of excluding the LGBTQ community. Last season’s slurs brought up still-fresh memories of when Yunel Escobar’s wrote a homophobic slur on eye black: a joke, apparently, between Escobar and some of his teammates. The Jays suspended Escobar for three games. But a clubhouse culture that in 2012 permitted a player to wear eye black proclaiming “you are a faggot” in Spanish showed little had changed five years later when Pillar called Motte a faggot out of frustration. The organization held Pride events years ago and as we saw with Pillar and Cherny, members of Pride Toronto have taken part in ceremonial events with the team. A trans woman, Rachel Lauren Clark, threw out the first pitch before a game at Rogers Centre in 2016. But the Blue Jays lack organized, consistent, and meaningful outreach to the city’s (and indeed the country’s) queer community.
There is a lack of leadership in the organization when it comes to equity issues. Manager John Gibbons made sexist and homophobic remarks two seasons ago with no official rebuke. Rogers had no issue with former analyst Greg Zaun’s misogyny and toxic masculinity being spewed regularly during Jays games, behaviours that help continue the sport’s entrenched homophobia. (Zaun was notably fired for inappropriate conduct toward women staffers at Sportsnet in November.) Both the team and Rogers consider Pillar a face of the franchise.
The Blue Jays’ organizational failure to support and ally with LGBTQ2IA fans reflects a city that fails to protect its queer citizens on an institutional level. On the surface of things, Toronto is a queer-friendly city; its queer acceptance is one facet of its celebrated diversity. Toronto’s annual Pride Parade is one of the biggest in the world, as is its recently expanded Pride Month. The city hosted World Pride in 2014. These things suggest the city, its leaders, and its institutions are welcoming of queer folks and concerned about our safety.
But like the city’s MLB team, Toronto has failed to act in true allyship with its queer community. Many queer Torontonians are not protected by organizations whose purpose is to provide such protection. The Toronto Police Service, which has engaged in historic and current raids targeting the queer community (and has failed to apologize for all of these incidents) is a racist institution. When Black queer activists halted the 2016 Pride Parade with specific demands regarding unequal representation and the institutional, racist violence inflicted by TPS, many Torontonians sided with the police.
The violence which Toronto’s queer community has always faced, came to the fore with the arrest of Bruce McArthur. McArthur is an alleged serial killer who targeted at least six men from Toronto’s queer community and has possibly targeted gay men in the city for decades. When LGBTQ Torontonians raised concerns about their missing friends and relations, they were dismissed by the TPS, whose chief, Mark Saunders, blamed the community for hindering the McArthur investigation. The repeated failures of the Toronto Police Service in the McArthur case have reignited debate about the participation of uniformed officers participating in June’s Pride Parade. Toronto Pride has asked TPS to withdraw their application, but many Torontonians feel the queer community is once again overreacting.
The timeline of the McArthur investigation and recent interactions between TPS and the city’s queer communities is extremely telling. Chief Saunders apologized for the 1981 bathhouse raids in 2016. A few months later the TPS concluded Project Marie, an undercover sting which ticketed and arrested gay men lured to the park for sex. In December 2017, police insisted there was no connection between the disappearances of several of the city’s queer men, who had gone missing in recent years. In January 2018, McArthur was charged with murdering those missing men. Tess Richley went missing in Toronto’s gay village last year. Her mother was left to find her body.
In a climate of targeted violence and broken trust between the city and LGBTQ folks, the empty promises of a centrefielder and a baseball club’s damage control to be better don’t mean that much. It’s easy to let Pillar and the Jays organization off the hook when Toronto police don’t protect queer Torontonians, especially LGBTQ2IA people of colour in this city. But the tension between Toronto’s queer community and the city’s leaders like Mayor John Tory and Chief Saunders simply adds urgency for the Jays and Pillar to act on their promises from last season. Like the city, the Blue Jays have a history of harming the queer community. The team and Pillar must do more if they wish the build, rather than further damage, their relationship with the city’s (and country’s) queer community.
There is little reason to have faith that the team and Pillar will deliver. As a city we are too much like Kevin Pillar. Just like the player, the city and its people take LGBTQ safety for granted.