Sexuality a ‘non-issue’ during Wynne’s election campaign: expert

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne smiles as she speaks to the media after winning a majority government at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, June 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne smiles as she speaks to the media after winning a majority government at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday, June 13, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Kathleen Wynne’s sexual orientation wasn’t on voters’ minds during the election campaign that saw her crowned Ontario’s first openly gay premier, a shift some observers and LGBT advocates attribute to the premier’s own attitude as well as the public’s.

What just a few years ago might have fuelled attack ads and whisper campaigns turned out to be a complete “non-issue” in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote, said Graham White, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

“It really is kind of a remarkable turnaround from 10-15 years ago,” said White, who lives in Wynne’s west-Toronto riding.

“I’d like to think the Ontario population is becoming more tolerant — certainly they’re becoming more familiar with public figures, not just politicians, who are out,” he said.

Maura Lawless, the executive director of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, which works with Toronto’s LGBT community, said it signals people are more willing to weigh a candidate’s contribution rather than just their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It’s a reflection of how progressive Ontario is in relation to accepting and knowing and understanding that LGBT people are part of our community and can be in significant leadership positions,” she said.

Others said Wynne’s decision not to make her sexuality a key part of her image also helped keep it out of the public discourse.

“It’s never been the focal point of who she is,” said Andrea Houston, a former reporter for Xtra!, part of the gay media organization Pink Triangle Press.

“It’s definitely positioned her as a strong woman premier of Ontario as opposed to ‘the gay leader’ or ‘the gay premier,’ and that’s an incredibly smart strategy,” said Houston, who often speaks on gay rights.

That all three party leaders kept the mudslinging to a minimum likely elevated the public discussion, said Toronto city Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who in 2010 became the city’s first openly lesbian councillor.

“I don’t think we’re in nirvana, but I am very pleased that in this election campaign that people were firm, disciplined but respectful in their dialogue,” she said.

“The tone is set from the top.”

But Wong-Tam said there’s no guarantee things will play out the same way every time.

“There will be electoral campaigns where it will be divisive and when people will want to drag up issues around sexuality and sexual orientation of candidates,” she said.

Wynne’s victory should nonetheless be hailed as a milestone for a community still struggling with discrimination, gay rights advocates said.

While there has been some recognition of her achievement — including a Twitter shoutout from actor and gay-rights activist George Takei — some said the celebration has been disappointingly muted.

Ken Popert, who heads Pink Triangle Press, said it should be possible to highlight a significant turning point for the gay community without making Wynne’s sexuality her defining characteristic.

He said many in the media show an “obvious reluctance” to mention that Wynne is a lesbian or acknowledge her breakthrough.

A CBC reporter who was providing analysis as the election results came in faced stern criticism online after he twice referred to Wynne’s sexuality as a “lifestyle choice.”

He apologized Friday on the network’s morning radio show.

© The Canadian Press, 2014