Pinkwashing Meets Astroturf

How Canadian Oilmen Pinkwash the Keystone Pipeline

How proponents of Keystone XL cynically exploit LGBT people

Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty

What do you get when you cross an oil company with gay rights?

Mostly, an epic fail. But also a peek inside a vast (or not so vast) right-wing conspiracy seeking to develop the Canadian tar sands and build the Keystone pipeline.

Case in point:, a website and social media presence to remind us that OPEC countries treat gays badly, but Canada treats them well. Therefore, we should—you guessed it—develop the Canadian tar sands and build the Keystone pipeline. For the gays’ sake.

Even if the campaign weren’t so clumsily executed, it would still be a dubious proposition. As groups like Queers for the Climate have pointed out, the same people who oppose LGBT equality also tend to oppose environmental protections.

Moreover, only the most narrow-minded gay people base their decisions solely on what’s good for the gays. Campaigns like assume that LGBT people are an interest group with only one interest: their own.

This, roughly, is what the critic Jasbir Puar has called “homonationalism”: the idea that gay identity is like a national or tribal identity. What’s good for the gays is good, period.

As Puar further pointed out, this notion of a global gay identity is easily manipulated. Opechatesgays is one example. So are the cynical statements of American conservatives condemning Iran’s appalling human rights record when it comes to LGBT people. The same people opposing employment protections for gays here at home suddenly wave the rainbow flag when it comes to criticizing Iran. is also an example of “pinkwashing”: the attempt to use a country’s treatment of LGBT people as propaganda. The most controversial case of pinkwashing is that of Israel, which has an excellent record on LGBT equality, and which has trumpeted that record to boast that it is an advanced, liberal democracy, in contrast to Palestine and the rest of the Arab world. Not all Israeli gay propaganda is pinkwashing—a lot of it is good, old-fashioned PR to attract gay tourist dollars to Tel Aviv. But some of it—a photo circulated of two male Israeli soldiers holding hands, and captioned “It’s Pride Month. Did you know the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally?”—definitely is. Likewise the ludicrous New York Times ad this Christmas Day that featured a gay man saying, “Hamas, ISIS, and Iran kill gays like me… In Israel, I am free.”

Likewise here. Let’s not talk about the environmental impact of mining the Tar Sands; let’s talk about Canada’s record on same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, and civil liberties. Look over here, gays! Pay no attention to the tar sands behind the curtain!

Of course, to call out pinkwashing is not to deny the facts. It is true that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria (the three countries highlighted on are very bad places to be gay. Canada’s record on gay rights (and many other issues) is perhaps one reason to prefer Canadian oil over Nigerian oil, to be taken into account when balancing environmental costs, the possibility of alternatives, economic costs and benefits, political benefits, and a host of other considerations. But pinkwashing’s message is not so subtle. We like you, so you like us.

The stupidity of the opechatesgays website matches the stupidity of its message. My favorite fail? That gays (and other liberals) should choose Canadian oil because Canada “has no laws prohibiting LGBT lifestyle.”

Honey, your conservative underwear is showing. “Lifestyle” is a right-wing code word. My sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle.” Nor is someone’s gender identity. They are traits. There is no such thing as a gay lifestyle, except in right-wing propaganda to oppose LGBT equality.

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Perhaps Canada is good to its Indians and Negroes too.

Then there are the clunky tweets. “Say yes to Keystone XL and no to homophobic OPEC oil!” The tweets linking to the National Review, that bastion of LGBT equality. And the dozens of tweets supporting Keystone XL for all the usual, and far more relevant, reasons—jobs, energy independence, etc.—which make it pretty transparent that the whole LGBT thing is just a tactic.

Which it is. is one project of a much larger organization,—and here is where things get really interesting. It turns out that EthicalOil, which refuses to divulge its funders, is linked to a network of Conservative party leaders, petrodollars, and right-wing media outlets.

As uncovered by the climate blog desmogblog, the Ethical Oil meme dates to a 2010 book by Ezra Levant. That book and its messages (specifically, that the Tar Sands projects were threatened by “foreign interests”) were immediately trumpeted by the right-wing Sun media outlets (“Fox News North”), the Harper government, and online by a blogger named Alykhan Velshi. This was the beginning of

Americans are familiar with these kinds of shenanigans—the right wing “talking points” circulated between Republican leaders, Fox News, CTTs (Conservative Think Tanks) in Washington, and above all, Grover Norquist, who has held his Wednesday morning messaging-coordination meetings for two decades now—although he is now being eclipsed by an even farther-right network called Groundswell. You know how it works: all of a sudden, messaging phrases like “Obama is putting politics above public safety” (regarding immigration) pop up everywhere. Consent is manufactured—like, remember the Ebola crisis from a few weeks ago? You know, before the election? The one Obama wasn’t protecting us against? Whatever happened to that, anyway? By coordinating different parts of the conservative echo chamber, concocted stories can suddenly be “everywhere” and “controversial” and newsworthy.

But we don’t have to speculate about smoking guns in the case of opechatesgays. Desmogblog has already connected the dots.

The founders of Ethical Oil, and opechatesgays, are Hamish Marshall and his wife, Kathryn Marshall. Mr. Marshall’s communications firm, Go NewClear Productions, includes “over 50 websites connected primarily to the Conservative Party of Canada, the Wildrose Alliance Party,, and other right-wing causes and politicians,” according to a detailed analysis of the sites’ IP addresses. Go NewClear’s clients include Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who previously was the national resources minister and parroted the “ethical” line as soon as it was released, and Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, both outspoken supporters of Keystone/tar sands development. Desmogblog even found that the sites use the same WordPress widgets.

Hamish Marshall himself is a former staffer of Prime Minister Harper. Velshi left his position at Ethical Oil to become a Director of Planning for Harper; prior to Ethical Oil, he used to work for Kenney. The Ethical Oil Institute has only two directors on its board: Ezra Levant, the author of the original book and an anti-environmental wingnut who once chain sawed a potted plant on Earth Day, and Thomas Ross, a leading lawyer for tar sands developers.

In other words, this is a very small vast-right-wing-conspiracy. The whole media operation is managed by two anti-environmental lackeys, current and former Harper staff members, and someone’s wife. None of this is illegal; it’s just a revolving door between the Conservative government, the oil industry, and a fake nonprofit.

Which is the final point. wants you to “donate now to promote this grassroots ad”—a laughably bad spot showing two photogenic gay men seeing “No Gays” on a storefront window (“If you wouldn’t shop at a store that discriminates like this, then why would you buy your oil from countries that do?”). But such donations are surely a sham. Ethical Oil refuses to disclose its donors, and Kathryn Marshall deftly declined to answer whether it has taken money from the petroleum industry, or, in particular, foreign companies that own Canadian and U.S. firms. So, we can’t say for sure, but who do you suppose might support such a PR push? And why would its ostensible spokesperson refuse to answer yes/no questions about them?

Opechatesgays is where homonationalism and pinkwashing meet Astroturf (the attempt of anti-environmental organizations to seem pro-environmental by ginning up fake grass-roots support). It clumsily pretends to care about LGBT people and their “lifestyles,” yet its actual interest is to develop the tar sands—an activity which the Economist recently described as “one of the bleakest scenes of man-made destruction.” And its foundational assumption—that some gay people are so selfish as to only think of themselves—is as insulting as its attempt to exploit them.