Ryerson honours Montreal ethicist who opposes gay marriage

TORONTO - A quiet, but colourful display of dissent crept into Ryerson University's convocation ceremony yesterday, as faculty donned a rainbow of gay-pride colours to protest granting an honorary degree to an ethicist who opposes same-sex marriage.

As many as 15 members of the academic procession turned their backs on Margaret Somerville when she received her doctorate of science.

Ms. Somerville said she considered the visual opposition which included the brief raising of a "My Ryerson Honours Equal Rights" sign part of an acceptable "discourse of mutual respect."

But the leading legal ethicist from Montreal expressed concerns over whether the ongoing, sometimes nasty dispute over her award would generate a "chill" in university corridors and prevent academics and students from speaking freely.

Ms. Somerville is against gay marriage because she says it infringes on a child's right to know both biological parents far more difficult in a same-sex relationship.

Critics have labelled her "homophobic" an allegation Ms. Somerville rejects and tried to stop the degree. They expressed dismay at the timing of the degree, which coincides with Toronto's Gay Pride Week and is a prelude to the upcoming parliamentary debate on gay marriage.

Ms. Somerville and supporters say the award is really about freedom of expression, a pillar of the academic community and a driving force behind her decision to ultimately accept the honour, despite receiving threatening e-mails.

"As we all know, some people are hurt by some of my views," Ms. Somerville, a professor in the faculty of medicine and founding director of the centre for medicine, ethics and law at McGill University, told hundreds of graduates and families gathered for convocation. "I want to say that, although I believe that I must stand by those views, I genuinely regret the hurt that causes to them."

In a statement released yesterday, Ryerson acknowledged members of the public and the school community have expressed "unease and concern" about Ms. Somerville's position on gay marriage. Awarding an honorary doc torate is a "recognition of an in dividual's distinguished achievements in a particular field" and "not an endorsement by Ryerson of that person's activities and positions on specific social issues," the statement read.

That is a statement that Rev. Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church, who performed Canada's first gay-marriage ceremony and lobbied against this degree, had hoped would have been read out publicly at the convocation ceremony. He expects there to be another push in the fall to have the degree rescinded.

Last week, the awards and ceremonies committee of Ryer-son's academic council decided it would not rescind the degree for fear it "would raise basic issues of freedom of speech in an academic environment." This, despite a declaration that "many of us disagree strongly" with Ms. Somerville's opinions on same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage