Toronto Star, Published on Monday January 28, 2013
Marilyn Byers has given countless presentations to young people about equality and homophobia, rattling off names like Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres when telling students about openly gay figures who have done great things.
She plans to add Kathleen Wynne to the list for her next presentation.
After winning the Ontario Liberal leadership this weekend — at a convention that Byers watched in the living room of her Toronto home — Wynne is set to become the province’s first female and first openly gay premier.
Wynne is making history, but emphasized to reporters on Sunday that she isn’t — and doesn’t want to be — a gay activist, because that’s not why she got into politics.
She doesn’t need to be an activist to inspire someone like Byers. An activist herself, Byers has been pushing for equality with PFLAG Canada since her son came out nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m out to make a difference, and that’s what Kathleen did; she made a difference for many, many people,” Byers said.
Many others in Toronto’s LGBT community are celebrating Wynne’s victory, including Arthur Kong, executive director and co-founder of Proud Politics, which works to elect more LGBT leaders in government.
He said she’s an inspiration to LGBT youth, but it’s important that she’s a woman. Wynne’s one of only a handful of openly gay female politicians.
“There’s always this bias toward males in the community, in terms of portrayal in the LGBT community,” Kong said.
“Her and her partner/wife being out in the public, I think, will encourage more young women who are labelled as LGBT … to step out and take on leadership roles, in whatever capacity that they are in.”
Neil Thomlinson, who teaches in Ryerson University’s politics and public administration department, suggested that a lack of female, openly gay politicians may have something to do with an inequality that female politicians continue to fight.
Though progress has been made — Wynne will become the sixth woman currently running a province or territory once she’s sworn in — some women in politics still face different treatment than men, he said.
History aside, Thomlinson hopes people stop talking about Wynne’s sexual orientation soon.
Glen Murray, the openly gay Toronto Centre MPP who ran against Wynne in the leadership contest before backing out to support her, hopes the same.
Wynne was elected for her political skills, ideas and integrity. Her sexual orientation, he said, is irrelevant.
“It just doesn’t matter anymore, no one cares,” Murray said.
But it does matter to some.
“It matters to minorities and young gay kids who are subjected to bullying,” said George Smitherman, who was Ontario’s first openly gay MPP.
It matters to Ryan Tollofson, at least in the short term. The Ontario Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce president was on the delegate floor when Wynne won and thanked her spouse for supporting her campaign.
“You no longer have to edit those parts of your life if you want to be involved in politics,” Tollofson said.
And it definitely matters to Byers, who compares to Wynne to U.S. President Barack Obama for being “someone who is not shy to say who they are.”
“Every step forward is positive.”
With files from Robert Benzie and Rob Ferguson.