“Is Ontario ready for a gay Premier?”
“Can a gay woman win?”
Kathleen Wynne’s questions to delegates at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention were answered with a resounding “yes,” as she went on to become the first openly gay head of a government in Canada.
As I joined in the celebration of this milestone, watching the voting into the wee hours of the morning on the Internet at my home in Switzerland, I couldn’t help but think back to my own journey as the first openly gay MP in Canada. When I came out publicly in an interview with the late Barbara Frum in February, twenty-five years ago next month, in 1988, even putting those two questions would have been unthinkable.
There were no openly gay or lesbian provincial or federal elected representatives in Canada when I came out - indeed there were only four in the world at the time at a national level. I had solid support from party leader Ed Broadbent and caucus colleagues but the hostility and homophobia that greeted my coming out was incredible.
My office windows were shattered, I received death threats, and public officials and media heaped scorn on me, with then-B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm saying “I don’t know whether we should really feel so good about people influencing young girls or young boys in this way.” Globe and Mail columnist Orland French wrote: “It is a scene to ponder, should the NDP come to power. There, in the sunshine of Stanley Park, smack in the heart of righteous B.C., traipses Justice Minister Svend Robinson, hand in hand with his male lover. The totem poles would droop in embarrassment. Is Canada ready for this? He is flaunting his sexuality in a crusade to promote gay rights, and that’s the unsettling nature of his disclosure. If the NDP isn’t cringing, it ought to be.”
While I went on to be re-elected in my Burnaby constituency with the biggest majority of any of the seven elections I won, it would be another six years before the second openly gay MP came out - Quebec MP Réal Ménard- and then another seven years after that before the first (and only) MP came out as lesbian, New Democrat Libby Davies. To date, the only other openly gay or lesbian leader of a party in Canada with a seat in a legislature has been former PQ Leader André Boisclair.
While there are now out gay and lesbian representatives in the House of Commons, and Senate and provincial legislature, including former Liberal minister Scott Brison, Ms. Wynne becomes one of only three openly lesbian or gay government leaders in the world, joining Iceland’s Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir and Belgian PM Elio Di Rupo.
When I ran for the national leadership of my party in 1995 - the first openly gay person to do so - I won the membership vote in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. At the convention, opposing forces pressed delegates to support other candidates by arguing that an openly gay man could never win rural Ontario. It gave me particular satisfaction to see Ms. Wynne take on similar arguments almost twenty years later and win, announcing that she would be Minister of Rural Affairs as well.
So in the end, what difference does Ms. Wynne’s victory make? I believe that it sends out a tremendous signal of hope and empowerment to those young lesbians and gay men across Ontario and beyond, especially those living in small rural communities who feel isolated and alone. Now, they can be anything they want to be, including premier. Given the devastatingly high levels of suicide and attempted suicide among LGBT youth, this is important. It will save lives and build self-esteem.
Kathleen Wynne said in her maiden speech on being elected to the Ontario Legislature in 2003: “As far as I know, I am the first openly lesbian MPP in the Ontario Legislature. As such I have a responsibility to young lesbians who are looking for examples of hope and success.” With her election as Canada’s first openly lesbian head of government, she has given young lesbians and gay men across the country that hope. Ms. Wynne’s election was a great day for equality in Canada, and it fills me with pride and hope as well.
What was unthinkable back in 1988 when I came out is now reality. That is progress we can all celebrate.
Svend Robinson was an NDP Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2004. He now lives in Geneva, where he co-ordinates parliamentary relations for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria