Public, family acceptance for gay & lesbian politicians
By Kris Scheuer
(Written for Town Crier Feb 2/2004)
Kathleen Wynne is a politician who happens to be a lesbian.
However during the last provincial election campaign, “I was told, ‘You can’t win because you are a lesbian. You can’t run uptown because your lifestyle is too alternative,’ ” says the Liberal MPP for Don Valley West . “But I don’t live downtown. I grew up in the suburbs. I am an uptown person. Why transplant myself, then the only thing about me becomes that I’m a lesbian!“I think it’s a victory for honesty and integrity that despite the fact that I am openly lesbian (I was elected). I am allowing people to get to know me well enough to elect me on what I stand for,” Wynne explains.
Wynne also ran in 2000 and was elected the public school trustee for Eglinton-Lawrence. At the time, pieces of literature were being dropped off calling Wynne an extremist lesbian. Again, she won anyway.
Toronto-Centre Rosedale Councillor Kyle Rae (Ward 27 ) was openly gay before the start of his political career in 1991 and has been re-elected ever since. “I decided in the beginning not to separate (my public and private life). If you have a high sense of privacy in the beginning, then you start to conceal who you are,” he says
“I am talking about a private life that has been discriminated against historically. I am a minority, so it is important for it (being gay) to be public,” says Rae who came out at age 23.
Being gay “was a plus for me when I ran and not just in the gay community. The boundaries have been expanded to include North Rosedale and South Rosedale. The people up there have been incredibly supportive. They ask about Mark. They were supportive about same sex marriage,” he says.
Wynne first came out at age 37. Up until that point, she had never dated a woman.
“I grew up in Richmond Hill and I did not know anybody, who was openly lesbian,” she says. “So it just wasn’t on my radar screen. I lived in a completely heterosexual context and there was no, NO question in my mind about what my sexuality was.”
While others knew they were attracted to the same sex at a younger age, “I had a crush on boys,” she says, adding that she believes people can change as they become more authentic themselves. “As I got older, I sorted out what some of that discomfort was when I was in my teen years and that I wasn’t tapping into my sexuality.”
When Wynne “came out”, she was married to Phil, living in North Toronto, with three kids aged 10, eight and six. In fact, it is Wynne’s partner of 14 years, Jane Rounthwaite, who first introduced Wynne to her now ex-husband Phil. Rounthwaite, Phil and Wynne all met at Queen’s University back in the early-1970s.
“So for 37 years I had lived with heterosexual privilege. So when you live that close to dominate culture when you are that close to the power structure you don’t think that your are going to lose acceptance,” she says. “Of course I was accepted, you know, I was a white, middle-class woman.”
“So whether or not I was going to be accepted or not was not the issue, until the moment when I decided that I was going to have to change my life. Then you realize that . . . one can be ostracized,” she comments. “And I saw that line and I realized I was going to step over the line.”
It was a terrifying and challenging time, she recalls. Not only was she coming out, but going through a multiple-year separation and divorce. Her biggest fear was losing her kids.
“What Phil and I decided was that we were not going to — either of us — leave the kids so,” she laughs. “We had to figure out how we were going to . . . set up a living arrangement that would allow both of us to see the kids everyday.”
So Rounthwaite, Phil, Wynne and the kids all lived together. Then a second house was purchased on the same lot, so the family members could go between houses daily.
“One of the things that people had the most trouble with was that Phil and I were not fighting. I got the feeling that they would have been more comfortable if we were in pain and fighting. There was pain, but that we were trying to work out a different lifestyle. What I heard was, ‘You are making me uncomfortable.’ ”
People told the two women to leave the neighbourhood.
“And I said, ‘No way. My kids are at school here,’ ” she says. “And it’s not like we were the only lesbians north of Lawrence. There are lots of gay people who live in North Toronto, but they are not necessarily all open.”
Even the couple’s gay and lesbian friends encouraged them to move downtown to a more urban and diverse setting.
“It was a very painful time. But I didn’t think we had any choice,” she says. “I just believed that . . . if I did the right thing for the kids everyday that somehow some how in the long run it would be the right thing for them.”
Her family is as accepting “as I would expect anyone to be.”
“And Jane and I have always been very careful . . . not to put anything in anybody’s face that they are not ready to accept. So we are very discreet and we’re very modest.”
Wynne says she does not plan to marry again, unless it is important to her partner, who knew she was a lesbian at age six. “She (Jane) never assumed that she’d be able to marry.”
Rae married his partner of 10 years, Mark Reid, last June.
Wynne adds, “I completely support the right of lesbians and gays to marry. Do I think that marriage is a wonderful institution with no flaws and everyone should aspire to a blissful married state? No . . . I think that the institution of marriage has a lot of baggage around it that we should be examining because it has its roots in one person basically being the chattel of another person.”
“As it so happens, my son is gay. So it’s my duty as a mother and politician to protect his rights (as well as others),” she says. Her 24-year-old son Christopher knew he was gay when he was in Grade 4, she explains. This was one year before Wynne came out to her family. Wynne also has two daughters: Jessie, 22, and Maggie, who will be 20.
As a politician, you also need acceptance in the form of votes to be elected.”When I have gone through my campaigns I’ve never really — at my core — been afraid of what the public could do to me. Because what’s the worst that could they could do to me? They could not elect me. So what? In the long run, so what? I will do something else. I have offered myself in this public service role because I believe I have something to offer. If because I am a lesbian people don’t want me there, well that’s fine,” says Wynne.
“I did not get involved in politics as a gay politician. That is not why I ran for office. It was certainly part of my approach to equity,” she adds. “We have to fight racism, sexism, homophobia and all of those ‘isms’ that marginalize people.”
Rae agrees. “You are a representative of a discriminated minority and now you are at the table where decisions are being made. The same needs to be done for the Asian and black communities, who have been denied justice and equality to finally be a part of the decision-making process,” he says.
Wynne went on record as a lesbian in her maiden speech.
“As far as I know, I am the first openly lesbian MPP in the Ontario Legislature,” she stated in her speech. “As such I have a responsibility to young lesbians who are looking for examples of hope and success.”
Toronto Centre-Rosedale representative and the province’s Minister of Health, George Smitherman, has the distinction of being the first openly-gay MPP.
Wynne says that, “Dalton McGuinty is on record supporting same sex marriage. I would expect whatever misgivings individual members had that they’d support equity . . . This is not a group interested in marginalizing people. This is a group of individuals who ran because others were being marginalized.”
“Sure there’s discrimination and we have to fight it, but my life has been very, very privileged,” she concludes.
“In the inner city, we have reached that stage (acceptance). I don’t think it would be as easy in Scarborough or Etobicoke to be out. In the inner city, we are seen to be good neighbours and citizens and taxpayers and part of the fabric of the city,” says Rae.