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Maxime St. Pierre, left, and Liberal MP Scott Brison pose in an official wedding photo in Cheverie, Nova Scotia, taken August 18, 2007. The wedding marked the first time that a federal politician married his same-sex partner.HO

When Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman kissed his spouse, Christopher Peloso, before a bank of cameras this week, he announced his campaign with a public display of affection normally reserved for heterosexual candidates and their spouses.

The gesture may have appeared casual, but it signalled two things to Canadians: that same-sex marriage is becoming an acceptable part of the country's social and political geography and that being openly gay is no longer a liability for politicians. As David Rayside, a University of Toronto professor of political science and sexual diversity, notes, "Visibility counts."

Mr. Smitherman will be getting a whole lot more visibility during the next year as he seeks to become the first gay mayor of Canada's largest city. And he may not be the only candidate reaching for that goal: He will probably be challenged by another openly gay politician, Glen Murray. The two-term former mayor of Winnipeg has not yet formally announced his candidacy, but he has acknowledged that he is considering joining the race.

Their opponent, in turn, will almost certainly be businessman and radio host John Tory, a socially progressive conservative who once lost a hard-fought provincial riding race to another openly gay candidate, Kathleen Wynne.

As a one-time health minister, Mr. Smitherman, 44, will certainly face far more questions about his role in the eHealth Ontario scandal than about his sexual orientation. That's as it should be. Few Torontonians - or Vancouverites or Montrealers - would be surprised to learn that lifestyle is no longer an issue in local politics. But are Canadians outside large urban centres - especially those in small towns or rural areas - prepared to elect openly gay politicians to top leadership roles, such as premier or prime minister?

Pollster Michael Adams, who tracks social values in Canada, says sexual orientation isn't an issue. "We're at the point where we're past it," he says. "There are groups whose cultural differences are more controversial than being gay."

A 2007 Environics survey found that 75 per cent of Canadians agree or strongly agree that gays and lesbians should be permitted to run for public office, the highest approval level of all countries in the Western Hemisphere. (In the Caribbean and Central America, up to 89 per cent of those polled felt that gay candidates should not be allowed to stand for election.) Still, Prof. Rayside says there is little Canadian public opinion research on how voters perceive gay politicians. He estimates that fewer than one in 10 Canadians would change his or her vote because of a candidate's sexual orientation, and he points out that the attitudes of rural Canadians tend to be more accepting than many urbanites assume. But he notes that "there would still be an element of discomfort that could be a factor in a close race."

How much? Last year's election of Barack Obama initially looked like a new chapter in American race relations, but the outpouring of hatred toward the first African-American President over the past summer suggests that old prejudices can and do linger just beneath the surface.

There have long been - and still are - gay politicians who have not come out of the proverbial closet to their constituents for fear of losing future elections.

The first wave of openly gay politicians - crusaders such as former Burnaby MP Svend Robinson and long-time Edmonton city councillor Michael Phair - focused their energies on equity-focused issues such as affordable housing, police conduct and employment-equity law.

In recent years, they have been succeeded by a younger generation for whom sexual orientation is incidental to a range of other political objectives. As Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison has put it, he is not a gay politician but rather a politician who happens to be gay.

Mr. Murray, Canada's first gay mayor, was elected in a heavily suburban city and devoted much of his time in office to reforming Winnipeg's tax base and addressing environmental issues. When he first ran, he encountered resistance from Winnipeg's Muslim community. But he persisted in forging ties. "After a couple of terms, it's the community I'm closest to," he says.

Mr. Smitherman's political career dates to a 1995 controversy over same-sex benefits, and he was later elected in a riding with a large gay population. In opposition, he cultivated a scrappy persona and led the Liberal attack against the ruling Conservatives.

Once in office, he took on difficult portfolios (Health and Energy) rather than gravitating to equity-related legislative issues, although he was very public about his 2007 marriage to Mr. Peloso.

Could he have become Canada's first openly gay premier, enjoying a public profile that others - such the late New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield, who remained in the closet during his long political career - never attained?

Mr. Adams thinks so. "If George hung around, he could have run for [Dalton] McGuinty's job and he could have won."

Still, there are subtle but significant differences between serving as an openly gay MP, MPP or city councillor, and holding a prominent political leadership role.

Though most people take them for granted, the habits of high public office are steeped in the symbols of heterosexual marriage. At official functions, the prime minister or premiers are often seen with their spouses (typically wives), and greet visiting leaders with their other halves in tow. "I do think that's a barrier," Prof. Rayside says.

While the Canadian media remain discreet about the personal lives of politicians, there's no doubt that some spouses, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife, Laureen, do command the public's attention; information or images about the lives of leaders' families regularly find their way into the news.

With same-sex marriage now commonplace, some gay politicians - such as Mr. Brison, who has run and lost in two national leadership contests - have allowed their marriage ceremonies to become quasi-public events, thus giving voters a glimpse of customs that turn out to be familiar to most.

Yet, in so doing, they may also face even greater expectations to maintain long-term monogamous relationships than do their straight colleagues. When single politicians such as former prime minister Pierre Trudeau or Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay are known to be dating a succession of women, the public generally enjoys the titillation. But even today, high-profile gay politicians would probably be judged much more harshly if they took a similar approach to their romantic life.

For Mr. Murray, such superficial issues are ultimately beside the point. As he says, "You stand up and get judged on the content of your character."

John Lorinc is a Toronto-based writer.