The new premier of Ontario is, among other things, gay. This fact has garnered a few headlines, but also much commentary that Kathleen Wynne’s sexual orientation is quite irrelevant, and should not merit much mention. Instead, let’s get back to talking about Ornge, or teachers, or gas plants and wind power.
Such sentiment is encouraging in so far as it shows people want to move beyond the personal characteristics of their politicians, to focus on the politics of the day. However, I can’t agree that having a gay premier is irrelevant. To me, it seems like a proud moment for Ontario – a province which has of late seemed mired in rancorous political stalemate. And if we paint it as irrelevant, I think what we miss is a chance to celebrate our imperfect but still quite remarkable evolution into one of the world’s most open and accepting polities, all political rancour aside.
There are a number of reasons why having a gay premier seems momentous to me. First of all, I work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) refugees from around the world, who have come here fleeing persecution. Most of them have arrived alone and with few belongings, from countries where being gay is still punishable by jail time and even death. Yet they are people whom you might sit beside on the TTC, with no sense of the violent uprooting in their recent past. Such is the invisibility of their hardship, although in this case invisibility might seem like a relative gift. Through them I get to view this country as a model of acceptance and protection; the way many of them talk about Canada so glowingly makes me feel a stubborn pride in our country. I want desperately for all they say about us to be true.
Reality is not always quite as glowing, of course, as being gay can be very difficult even in Canada, despite all official protections. I work with GLBT people who have grown up right here, yet have faced terrible levels of discrimination, often from their own schoolmates and families. I have heard too many stories of bullying and rejection, and of corrosive internalized shame. Yet I also get to hear about the allies who have increasingly stepped up in support of GLBT people, many of whom have themselves shown great bravery and tenacity. Through them, I continuously rediscover how the overcoming of learned hatred is a truly inspiring thing to behold.
We are familiar with the injunction to judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members. But because gay people are a small and dispersed subset of the population, and because they are often invisible, the discrimination they have faced is less evident, and less captured in the collective narrative. And so the fact that the most populous province in Canada is now led by a lesbian may fail to resonate as an especially significant symbol of Ontario’s progress. Yet that is just what it is – a sign of progress and hope. And while it might appear that this is just about gay people – or women, as Wynne also became the first female premier in Ontario’s history – it’s a sign that bodes well not only for certain groups, but for our increasingly diverse province as a whole, as we struggle to come together through our many kinds of differences.
I know from personal experience what it’s like to realize you are different before you really know what it means – when you’re young and when it is not in the curriculum to teach you that people like you exist. So like many other different kinds of people, I know what it means to feel alien at precisely the phase of life most dedicated towards normalcy and fitting in. And I am familiar with keeping what seems like a terrible secret when you’re still a kid, when all you hear about who you are is insults and jokes. My life since then continues to pivot on the memory of that most challenging experience; so moments like Wynne’s victory remind me how lucky I am to have made it through that challenge, and to reflect with sadness on those who haven’t been as lucky.
As a string of highly publicized suicides brought to light last year, GLBT youth remain one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, despite improved visibility and support, and despite many exceptional youth advocates and activists. To get a vivid sense of what they’re still up against, try visiting this University of Alberta site, which lets you watch in real time the use of terms like “faggot” on Twitter. Imagine you’re a 12-year-old keeping a shamed secret, while you read these tweets as they appear in rapid-fire succession. Afterwards, statistics like these will become more believable: 55% of Canadian GLBT students report being verbally harassed in school; 21% were physically harassed or assaulted; 64% of GLBT students report feeling unsafe at school. And GLBT youth are five times more likely than other youth to try to kill themselves.
It is in this context that the Liberals’ choice of an openly gay premier seems especially significant. Theirs was a calculated decision based on who they thought could lead the party to an electoral victory, and they chose someone who happens to be gay. This means that the voting public of Ontario was perceived to be above the homophobia evidenced by the grim statistics above. Were we perceived incorrectly? Certainly there was some whispered commentary that rural Ontarians would not vote for a gay candidate on principal. But this is a great underestimation, as Wynne herself spoke to. In my experience of living in rural and northern Ontario, people were almost unfailingly kind when I came out to them as gay. Whereas homophobia proliferates in environments where homosexuality seems foreign and anonymous, it seems to me that when people are introduced to actual gay people in their community, they tend to rise to the occasion with generosity of spirit.
Much of the advancement gay people have made in Canada – where homosexual relationships were still illegal 45 years ago – has depended on gay people serving as ambassadors in this way, and bringing themselves as exhibit A into new realms and communities to show that there is nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to hate. Although Wynne is understandably at pains to explain that it is her ideas and actions, not her sexual orientation, which are of import, the fact that she is gay will inevitably play some kind of ambassador role. Wynne stated: “I do not believe that the people of Ontario judge their leaders on the basis of race, sexual orientation, colour or religion. I don’t believe they hold that prejudice in their hearts.” While undoubtedly some dwindling numbers of Ontarians still do hold such prejudice, her statement contains an aspirational truth. If Wynne succeeds as a leader, her tenure will shrink those numbers still further.
Success on this front won’t mean defeating the “anti-gays” in favour of the “pro-gays”. Rather, success will come at the hands of a mediator who can remind us that the gains of one group do not have to come at the expense of another. This won’t be easy, because as explicit discrimination falls further from favour, a kind of zero-sum strategy – which positions the advancement of one group in direct opposition to another group – has become a favoured tactic.
Perceiving politics as zero-sum is easy to do. After all, “your gain is my loss” is a very straightforward relationship to understand. For this reason, we are easily led into believing that gay rights are pitted against religious rights, or against other minorities, as though we can only move forward when another group loses. Zero-sum thinking can have a certain air of legitimacy about it, when cast as a kind of economics of scarce resources, a realpolitik strategizing or a world-weary realism.
But openness and acceptance are not by nature scarce or depleting, and respect is not zero-sum. And while this sentiment might sound cheesy or trite (I promise I didn’t find it in a fortune cookie), it does hold a fortunate truth for this increasingly diverse province.
So let’s hope that as Ontario turns back to difficult political decisions, some of which are in fact zero-sum, Wynne’s leadership gives us reason to reflect also on our collective gains. Of course, having a gay premier does nothing on its own to solve Ontario’s most pressing challenges. Nevertheless, it is significant as a symbol of progress and hope, in a world where refugees still flee from homophobic violence and where gay youth still turn to suicide. It’s a symbol that reflects real work and real achievements Ontarians have made in learning how to accept difference in ourselves and in each other.
Spending time reading internet political debates in the commentary sections of various media, as I did in preparing this blog, one might be forgiven for thinking Ontario was perpetually hurrying off to hell in a hand basket, and that we all hate each other. The reality is so much kinder and better than this. As Wynne’s win gives us another reason to remember, we have actually come a long way together.
Emily Harris-McLeod is a 2013 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BSW from McGill University and an MSW from Carleton University, and has ten years experience as a social worker. She volunteers as a counsellor with the 519 Church Street Community Centre, and with the Sherbourne Health Centre.
 Taylor, C. & Peter, T., with McMinn, T.L., Schachter, K., Beldom, S., Ferry, A., Gross, Z., & Paquin, S., Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. (Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011).