December 18, 2023

On December 14, 2023, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice decided in Rainbow Alliance Dryden et al. v. Webster to allow a defamation suit by a drag performer and a 2SLGBTQI community organization against an individual who publicly called them “groomers” to continue to trial. In doing so, the court ruled that there is no public interest in protecting baseless accusations of child sexual abuse against 2SLGBTQI people. 

The court relied on Egale Canada’s intervention to affirm the exact opposite: Because false accusations of pedophilia have been weaponized against 2SLGBTQI people to deny members of our communities equal rights and opportunities for decades, the law must allow people being targeted by these homophobic and transphobic myths to pursue defamation claims. 

This is an important decision for 2SLGBTQI communities that comes at a time when we are facing unprecedented levels of hate, harassment, and violence fuelled by the spread of misinformation and disinformation. As noted in the court’s decision, the term “groomer” is a slur used against drag performers that is “rhetoric based on hurtful, and hateful myths and stereotypes…”

This decision represents the significant finding that calling drag performers “groomers” is an accusation of child sexual abuse and that people targeted by that accusation have the right to take legal action to protect their reputations. 

Background and Outcome

In recent years, drag performers putting on family-friendly shows have been increasingly targeted with the baseless accusation that they are grooming children for sexual abuse. The correct use of the word “grooming” refers to practices by which sexual abusers gain access to victims, usually children and youth, and coerce and manipulate them to facilitate sexual abuse. 

The facts of this case occurred in Dryden, Ontario. Brian Webster runs a Facebook page and referred to a drag performer and a local 2SLGBTQI community organization, Rainbow Alliance Dryden (RAD), as “groomers”. In response, the performer and RAD are suing Webster for defamation.

The Facebook post includes screenshots of a news article about a planned all-ages drag event, including the performers’ names and faces. Horrifying comments were left under the post, including violent threats against the drag performers. Also, placards linking all-ages drag performances to pedophilia were hung up in public places around Dryden.

Webster applied to the court to have the defamation suit against him dismissed before it reached the trial stage based on anti-SLAPP legislation. Anti-SLAPP (SLAPP stands for “strategic litigation against public participation”) legislation allows courts to dismiss lawsuits that are based on opinions about matters of public interest. The court declined to dismiss the lawsuit because, as Egale explained in our intervention, baselessly accusing drag performers of child abuse is not a matter of opinion nor one of public interest. That means that the case can continue to trial.

Egale’s Role and Submissions

Egale intervened to provide the court with context about the relationship between drag performance and 2SLGBTQI culture as well as the history and impact of accusations of child abuse against our communities.

The court relied upon our submissions to find that drag performances are a form of cultural expression and that the equation of drag performances to child grooming is based on the homophobic and transphobic belief that gender diversity is inherently dangerous to children. The court accepted that the term “groomer” has come to function as a slur against drag performers and 2SLGBTQI people more broadly.

Moreover, the court leaned on the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent findings in Hansman v. Neufeld, in which Egale also intervened, to determine that trans and gender diverse people in Canada are a uniquely marginalized group. For that reason, public comments intended to expose them to hatred and contempt – in this case, the accusation of child abuse – are even less worthy of protection, and it is all the more important for victims of those comments to be able to defend themselves. 

Egale was represented in this intervention by Daniel Girlando, Natalie Kolos, and Lauren Malatesta of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. For more technical details on the decision, please see: Court finds “groomer” slurs targeting drag community not protected by anti-SLAPP law by Judson Howie LLP, who represented the plaintiffs in this motion.

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